Cutting politics

The extra NIS 350 million to the health basket has been greeted with a collective sigh of relief.

legal drugs 88 (photo credit: )
legal drugs 88
(photo credit: )
It's been a welcome, if all too rare, instance of coalition parties setting aside their narrow interests to do what is right. And as such, the government's approval of an extra NIS 350 million to pay for the addition of a number of drugs to the health basket, with several parties relinquishing money promised to them in the coalition agreement to fund the increase, has been greeted with a collective sigh of relief. The hunger strikers - colon cancer victims who managed to rivet the nation's attention on the threat to their lives posed by the health basket's deficiencies - and even the government itself, should be congratulated for showing that our democratic system can respond to the will of determined citizens. That when the cause is reasonable and just - such as seriously ill citizens expecting their lifelong health tax payments to entitle them to critical, life-sustaining drugs - it can actually trump the usual parochial politics, an outcome this newspaper recently espoused. But sadly, even this seemingly shining example of shunning power plays and working for the greater good has apparently not been devoid of an undercurrent of ego and political posturing - one which is now damagingly manifesting itself elsewhere. The Labor Party spearheaded the drive to resolve the health basket crisis, with party chairman Amir Peretz threatening to oppose the budget unless "critical changes" to the health basket were forthcoming. Sources close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that Peretz, in so doing, had "overstepped his place" and that Olmert was irritated by Labor's threats. Yet Olmert also clearly recognized that public sentiment favored additions to the health basket and, therefore, he was not about to assail Peretz over the issue. All of which makes the timing of a Finance Ministry announcement that the government was seeking to slash NIS 1 billion from the 2006 budget, with fully half of the cut to be taken from Peretz's Defense Ministry, seem more than coincidental. Quite apart from the unhappy timing of the announcement, just as Peretz was basking in the glow of his party's instrumental role in defusing the health basket conundrum, it also places the defense minister and Labor leader in a highly awkward predicament. During the recent Knesset election campaign, Peretz trumpeted his support for budgetary priorities which would improve the plight of the poor and strengthen the nation's social agenda. Yet here was Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, in announcing the budget cut, saying it "represents the beginning of a new order of priorities for the country, which includes both growth and narrowing of gaps." On the one hand, Defense Minister Peretz must fight to maintain the funding of his defense bailiwick. On the other hand, his Labor creed has been the redistributing of funds for the benefit of those most in need. It is difficult to disagree with Peretz aides who claim the Prime Minister's Office is trying to undermine the defense minister. If this were only a case of the usual political hardball, as petty and distasteful as that can be, it might not be too worrying. But these machinations have concrete and potentially seriously adverse implications. The cut is set to come out of the 2006 defense budget, from which the defense establishment has been working for almost half a year. Yet IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz says it was announced "without prior discussion" with the defense establishment, and would thus mean "cutting from what can be cut, instead of what should be cut." In other words, without due planning. Despite a succession of annual cuts, there may yet be room in the NIS 34 billion annually allotted to defense for decreasing expenditures based on a more efficient IDF. Halutz himself reopened the multi-year defense plan for just this purpose, as the Post reported in January. However, forcing the Defense Ministry to immediately improvise cuts which don't mesh with Halutz's long-term blueprint is bad, short-sighted policy - and all the more so if the motivation is even partially the settling of a political score. What should be cut, first, is the political maneuvering. As for substantive spending reductions, Halutz and his team should be given the time to implement rational, strategically sound measures. And more widely, if Olmert is serious about "setting a new order of priorities" to alleviate economic gaps, an immediately helpful and highly symbolic place to start would be by reducing the size of his bloated government. Fewer ministries would indeed be a relief.