MANILA, February 5, 2004 (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - Last Tuesday, the peso fell to its lowest in memory: P56.20 to the dollar. Yesterday, our currency – uh, rallied very slightly to P56.16. Sanamagan. What’s happening to our country?

The Administration has been blaming everybody and everything else for the peso disaster – except itself. It’s blaming the never-ending coup reports and "No-El" ululations. It’s blaming politics. Why, the possibility of non-diploma-holder FPJ becoming the next president is even being raucously touted as a major cause of the peso slide. The Monetary Board of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas is warning anew that any banks found speculating in currency and flouting foreign exchange rules would be stripped of their currency trading licenses and their officers flagellated as economic saboteurs.

I’m not saying: None of the above. But, in truth, these aren’t the real causes of the peso debacle. The culprit is the Administration itself. Why don’t the President and her wiseguy economic, finance and energy ministers look in the mirror? Or do their arithmetic? Are they deliberately looking the other way?

Of course, we’re in crisis for the most obvious reason: The government-run and underwritten National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR) lost an astounding P80 billion last year. Wow!

This year is going to be much worse. Check the books: NAPOCOR this year will lose between P160 billion and P200 billion. Based on current calculations, divided by 365 days a year, the government is losing P20 million per hour, or about P500 million per day. Think of it: How many poor families could be fed, homes built, livelihood and public works projects financed, with that kind of money – which hemorrhages daily from the government’s coffers?

Consider: By the time you get up to pee in the morning, your government will have pissed away another half a billion pesos owing to its mishandling of NAPOCOR. How to solve this problem? Don’t ask me. I’m just, like almost everyone, an ordinary Joe – or Juan. What about our geniuses from top to middle level in the Palace and the Cabinet with brilliant economic and finance backgrounds and even degrees summa, magna and cum laude from Ivy League and other famous foreign universities.

Don’t tell me GMA and all her top-echelon whiz kids overlooked NAPOCOR. Impossible.

* * *

The glowing statistics now being released by Malacañang were bounced off us on Thursday night last week just after the President swore our group in as officers of Samahang Plaridel, our organization of senior Filipino journalists (meaning, in euphemism, of the geriatric stage). After the oath-taking of our group – among them Inquirer columnist Neal H. Cruz (my vice chairman) and former Publisher Adrian L. Cristobal (vice-chairman), Secretary Diosdado Beltran, Treasurer Alejandro G. Liu, Auditor Crescencio L. Maralit, and Director Lilia R. Andolong – the Chief Executive took us to the Music Room for a frank "roundtable discussion".

It’s impressive, of course, that she revealed a 5.5 percent growth in gross national product (GNP) in 2003, but do you feel it? That’s the question. The vital election issue will be, as always: "Are you better off today than you were in year 2001?" This is the year GMA took office.

The President told us she had created three million jobs. She’s now pledging to create another six million.

Listening to La Presidenta, who perked up when she was speaking to our group (she had appeared a bit frayed at the edges and even discouraged fifteen minutes earlier in the ceremonial room), I could only remark that she has remarkable reserves of energy. We mustn’t underestimate her staying power, or her fighting spirit.

On the other hand, official Malacañang press releases are becoming too obviously servings of "bottled sunshine". Just consider the one issued January 31, 2004 – would you believe? – last Saturday! Here’s what it averred: "The peso had gone down vis-à-vis the dollar the past few days but Malacañang was taking it in strike. Indeed, before the weekend the peso showed signs of recovery. The economy is well and moving upward but the peso is being pummeled by political bickering, coupled with isolated military adventurism. This is a transient problem and we will get over it soon," Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said.

After that, the peso crashed still farther.

How soon is soon?

* * * J

ust before he flew off to Singapore, I had an fascinating exchange of views with Director General Yoav Biran of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To my surprise, Ambassador Biran, who had arrived for two days of talks, had requested a meeting with me, through Israeli Ambassador Joshua Sagi.

Ambassador Biran was accompanied by Director Mordehai Amihai of the South and Southeast Asia Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.

It soon became evident that the Philippines has assumed greater importance (of sorts) in world affairs owing to our assumption of membership, however transient, in the Security Council of the United Nations. Director General Biran’s visit was apparently an effort to enlist President GMA’s and Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert’s support for Israel’s plight in the UN Security Council.

One of Jerusalem’s concerns is that the ongoing erection of a "Great Wall", a physical barrier to prevent terrorist infiltration into Israel communities from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is under escalating international criticism. In response to the critics, Jerusalem is pointing out that more than 900 people were murdered in attacks carried out by Palestinian terrorists since late September 2000. In the past week, more incidents and suicide bomber attacks, and armed Israeli retaliation have taken more lives. The bomb attacks, it was pointed out, have continued targeting buses, restaurants, shopping malls and even private homes.

The Israelis complain that, in spite of the lurid news photos and newsreel footage of tall concrete walls going up, more than 97 percent of the planned 720 kilometers of "physical barrier" against infiltration will consist of a chain-link fence system. "Less than three percent will be constructed of concrete."

(The security strip is the width of a four-lane highway, with the chain-link fence equipped with an intrusion detection system in the center of the strip.)

"That’s all," the Israelis maintain.

The other day, I noticed that Israel’s usually hard-lining Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (the former Defense Minister who had once masterminded the invasion of Beirut, Lebanon) announced a bold peace move which would remove 17 Jewish settlements in Gaza and two in the disputed West Bank within the next few months. What an uproar this created among Sharon’s more radical coalition allies in Jerusalem, and sullen skepticism among the Palestinians.

During the years this writer covered the Middle East, off and on (including the Black September war in 1970), I’ve formed the almost cynical view that "peace" is

a desert mirage in that part of the world which has known thousands of years of conflict.

The irony of it is that three of the world’s great religious, all preaching "peace", have come out of those same deserts – the Hebrew faith, Christianity, and Islam.

God must love those deserts to have filled them with both religion and flies. Yes, sir, Beelzebub, the Lord of Flies, inhabits those desolate wastes, too. Amazingly, in the middle of those arid spaces, you encounter those annoying buzzing insects.

But I digress. I found Biran a remarkable men – as disputatious and brilliantly argumentative as I’ve ever encountered among the Chosen People. (And I’ve spoken with Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, among many others). Biran is a former Deputy for National Security for Foreign Policy, had been a member of the delegation to the Peace Conference in Geneva in 1973, the Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London, Asst. Director General for North America and Disarmament Affairs as well as Senior Deputy Director General for Middle East and the Coordination of the Peace Process.

However, I had to warn him that this weak-kneed, transactional, deal-making government would not have the guts to do the courageous thing in the Islamic-dominated United Nations, nor flout our Saudi Aramco connections, nor irritate the Organization of the Islamic neighbors, and our nine million homegrown Muslims – by backing Israeli’s initiatives.

I wish we had the conviction and chutzpah to stand up and declare, for ourselves, a principled and brave foreign (and, indeed, domestic) policy. But, alas, we’ve not demonstrated any intestinal fortitude lately. We call this, lamely, Realpolitik.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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