From the depths of Israel's agonizing crisis political, economic, social and moral there emerges the familiar time old solution of the politicians: the production of a scapegoat. Of course it is true that Simha Ehrlich has proved to be an unbelievably inappropriate finance minister. It now appears that he does not understand even the causal relationships between elementary economic facts. (He recently expressed surprise at people in Israel's complaining about the economic situation. People living so well, he said, with big cars, luxury homes, rich foods what are they complaining about? "Inflation? Unfavourable balance of payments? These are not their problems. They are problems of the government, and the government will deal with them.") Yet Ehrlich's failure is only a small part of the government's sickness. He himself has complained that he has not enjoyed the cooperation of his cabinet colleagues. The zeal of ministers in defending departmental budgets is a universal phenomenon of government. It is the very badge of coalitions, where inter party rivalries compound personal ambitions.
Unpopularity is thus the occupational hazard even of skilful finance ministers, if they are intent on effecting economies. In Israel it has been the common understanding for many years that the primary imperative for stopping the economic rot is a substantial reduction in government expenditure. It is no secret that when Ehrlich tried, gropingly, to plan economies, his colleagues did indeed collectively applaud them and separately frustrated their implementation.
Such a situation is not unique in government. That is precisely where the function of prime minister comes in.
Enforcement of agreed policy in all branches of government is not only the prerogative of the prime minister , it is his primary duty. He is captain of the ship; he is headmaster of the school; he is the conductor of the orchestra. His first obligation is to master the workings of his charge, and speedily to exert his binding authority when difficulties arise. The central cause of the functional failure of the Likud Government has been the almost complete absence of any effort to master the problems, and of any sign of the exertion of that authority. The Prime Minister has in fact failed to function as prime minister.
He himself recalled recently the idyllic atmosphere of the first six months of his government. In those days ministers complied not only with his request not to smoke at Cabinet meetings (they still refrain) but also with his exhortations not to leak information on their proceedings (nowadays detailed reports are published in the media within hours of each meeting).
But almost everybody then, in government and outside, still believed that the Prime Minister was loyal to his principles and decisive in his judgments. His wide ranging apathy had then not yet become apparent, and still unguessed at was his lack of concern about any area of government outside the foreign field. All his thoughts and energies were concentrated on achieving the signature of a peace treaty no matter the cost, which would confound the opponents who had for years besmirched him, unscrupulously and recklessly, as a man of violence. Beyond that objective all else, it seems, was a secondary, foggy expanse. The light hearted and sometimes irrelevant replies, in his Rosh Hashana broadcast interview, on some of the painful issues of the day, only reaffirmed this unhappy truth. One erstwhile supporter thus summed up the interview: "If a swimmer were calling for help, the Prime Minister would use a megaphone to assure him that salt water was good for the health."
The specific issue of reducing government expenditure is not only a function of economic management. It is a reflection of the total moral and social problem which brought about the fall of the Alignment and the rise of the Likud.
By reducing its own expenditure, the government was to set an example to the people. It was to initiate a chain reaction in which the people would be brought to live within their means. It was to be the first of a series of measures to wean workers from the services to industry. It was to be the prelude to a call to all sections of society to work harder, the opening of a campaign, with a detailed programme, for increased productivity; and to bring to an end the nightmare in the field of labour relations.
Under the Alignment, labour relations had reached the limits of the grotesque. Pressure groups in key industries and undertakings, able and willing to choke whole segments of the national economy and to engender untold loss for the state and considerable, sometimes irreversible, suffering on the people, exacted their demands from the government; and the government, sometimes deaf to just requirements of workers, often failed to honour its undertakings, and always flabbily surrendered, openly or surreptitiously, to the sheer power of the strikers.
Then the "linkage" system came into play whereby a specific group of workers become entitled automatically to a wage increase only because another group has won such an increase through a strike. In these circumstances no rational wage policy was possible, nor could peace in labour relations ever be achieved. Israel staggered from one surrender to another in the labour field, heaping, moreover, humiliation after humiliation on the government, amid growing despair in the hearts of the mass of the people.
This was to come to an end under the Likud Government. The "linkage" was to be done away with. A system of obligatory national arbitration, for the settlement of disputes in essential services and undertakings, would be introduced. Such a system operated in Britain throughout World War II under Labour Minister Ernest Bevin, and was continued for some seven years of economic strain after the war.
In short, the Likud promised an economic revolution by these and the other measures. Such a revolution required the cooperation of the public. The spirit of the people after May 1977 battered by the transparent degeneration in government and the sagging popular morale was one of hopeful expectation. The vast majority, including many who had voted against the Likud, were waiting for a call from the government, for the voice of an authentic moral authority, to back the details of policy which would reawaken the sense of social and national solidarity, which would testify to the workings of a team of good, attentive, considerate brains, and a firm hand at the head of affairs. The people expected hard decisions by the Government, decrees about which they would no doubt grumble but which they would know were for the ultimate restoration of national health. That, after all, was what they had been offered by the Likud before the election.
The call of moral authority was not expected from Ehrlich. That was the Prime Minister's duty, that was presumed to be the pledge of his personality, the content of his leadership. No government had enjoyed greater goodwill on its entry into office.
But that call never came. Neither in the first six euphoric months nor afterwards. Once in power, the Likud leaders seemed to have forgotten why they had come to power. In practically no field has a serious, intelligent effort been made to solve the grave internal problems inherited from the Alignment; deterioration has been inevitable. Housing, immigrant absorption where irresponsible neglect has reached proportions which patently discourage aliya and labour relations, are typical examples. The people, hopeful and tense with expectation in 1977, have by now relapsed into an orgy or an agony of all the ills of the Alignment period.
The replacement of Ehrlich by a more competent minister will in itself no doubt be salutary. But the concentrated offensive against Ehrlich suggests that his colleagues are using his failings to cover the over all incompetence and irresponsibilities of the Government, which will not be solved merely by his replacement, and the Likud's betrayal of the trust of the people.