The real test of Netanyahu’s newly found social conscience will be during the debate on the 2005 budget.

During the last year, the finance minister has tried to market himself as the new Netanyahu, the one who has learned from all of the mistakes that he made as a young prime minister. No more of the old Bibi who told John Doe one thing and Joe Blow the opposite, so that each heard what he most wanted to hear. No more of the old Bibi who made an urgent, dramatic announcement to the press after every mishap only to issue a calming announcement a few hours later. No more of the old Bibi whose right hand voted against his left, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once described the situation. No more.

The new Netanyahu is being marketed as someone who has matured, learned, absorbed the lessons and become a reliable person with a refined and orderly ideology that dictates a clear map, which he wishes to promote, even if public opinion is opposed. Therefore, the main test of how genuine this change in the man who would be prime minister will be during the debate on the 2005 budget.

Until now, Netanyahu’s life as finance minister has been relatively easy. For some one who has claimed the mantle of Israel’s neo-conservative guru, it did not cost him a single shekel to cut the budget, reduce allowances and privatize some government services. These moves saved him millions.

However, this ideology has another side, which is no less central than reducing government involvement. It is an excellent educational system, a system that allows its graduates fully equal opportunities to realize themselves in the future. It is the only thing that grants moral legitimacy to the free market that facilitates true efficiency.

Without it, his economic ideology is nothing more than the imposition of jungle law, in which the bullies wax fat while the rest of society is marginalized, effectively economically disenfranchised, devoid of any real hope or chance of a better future in which they can realize their potential. Netanyahu himself noted this during a press conference last May when the Dovrat Commission’s preliminary report was published. He said, “Improved education is a step towards economic development. Competition and ambition are the two large changes that will protect Israeli society. Therefore this is a foundation layer for ensuring our future”.

He himself noted that implementing the reforms in the educational system would be very expensive and require enlarged budgets, at least during the transitional period. The money is needed to finance the massive structural changes that the Commission proposed, to raise teachers’ salaries, to pay severance to teachers who are made redundant and to hire new, quality people, etc. etc. “We understand that money will need to allocated during the transitional period. This is as clear as daylight”, said Netanyahu and promised again to find the budgets needed for the reform.

Despite this, as of this writing, discussions of the budget for 2005 have not included any increase in the budget for education. Instead, the familiar lines about reducing it are being heard. An additional reduction would compound the twelve (!) budget cuts that the Ministry of Education has suffered in recent years. This is in contrast to Netanyahu’s declaration; “We do not believe that it is possible to leave education in Israel, which is in the midst of a crisis, in its current condition. Therefore, we will find the political power and the budgetary power necessary to complete this revolution because our future, quite literally, depends on it”.

Therefore, the true test is still ahead of us. If Netanyahu genuinely intends to implement the critically important reforms proposed by the Dovrat Commission, and not just the parts that save money (like firing teachers), his seriousness must find real expression in the coming budget. For example, in an earmarked, enlarged budget for implementing all elements of the reform. Otherwise, we will have proof that the new Bibi is as fraudulent as the bounced political checks he has been issuing.

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