The government on Sunday voted to limit to five the number of years certain kollel students will be able to receive a monthly living stipend from the state, while a select few – some 2,000 characterized as “perpetual students” – will be eligible for the allotments in perpetuity.

The measure passed the cabinet by a vote of 14-8, with Likud ministers Gideon Erdan, Limor Livnat and Gideon Sa’ar joining the five Labor ministers voting against.

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Likud ministers Silvan Shalom and Dan Meridor abstained, as did Shas’s Meshulam Nahari and Ya’acov Margi.

Shas head Eli Yishai was not at the meeting because he was attending the funeral of firefighter Danny Hayat, and the party’s other minister – Ariel Attias – did not show up for the vote.

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying that the resolution that passed was in stark contrast to the situation today, where kollel students can receive the stipend for years on end.

Around 11,000 kollel students currently receive these income supplements.

The move follows a High Court of Justice decision in June ruling that the government could not continue paying stipends solely to haredim who study full-time, while others – such as university students – are ineligible for similar stipends.

In an apparent effort to accommodate the High Court ruling, the cabinet allocated NIS 50 million to a special fund for needy students.

According to the statement, “The goal of the recommendations, which were formulated by an interministerial team chaired by Prime Minister’s Office director-general Eyal Gabai, is to encourage the integration of the haredi sector in the labor market and to assist student populations in a balanced and equal manner.”

Under the plan, kollel students under the age of 29 with three children, whose income doesn’t exceed NIS 1,200 and who do not own a car, will receive a stipend of NIS 1,040 a month for four years. In the fifth year – the so-called “integration” year – the student will receive 75 percent of that amount and be allowed to study half-time, and work half-time. After that, he will be expected to enter the workforce.

Another NIS 20m. will be set aside for some 2,000 yeshiva students – expected to be the most astute at their studies – who will be allowed to continue studying past the fiveyear period.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said during the meeting that “these are the first steps that any government has taken on the issue.

Many governments have talked about it – we are doing something. This is an unprecedented, substantive and genuine change of direction. Limiting the support payments is designed to encourage this population to integrate into the labor market and leave the cycle of poverty.”

Before the cabinet meeting, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters that while not perfect, the move would be a marked improvement over the current situation.

“Before, this population could have received the stipend forever,” Steinitz said, referring to the kollel students.

“If you limit the stipend to four full years, and partly for a fifth year, and after five years, like a student after a bachelor’s and master’s degrees, they will have to think of work and getting professional training, then that is an improvement over the previous situation.”

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) said during the cabinet meeting that the argument over the issue has been blown out of proportion and turned into a political battle. Shalom said it would have been better had the vote been postponed until after the approval of the 2011/2012 state budget so that the two issues would not be connected.

Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor), who is currently abroad, left a vote against the resolution and issued a statement slamming Israel Beiteinu and its chairman Avigdor Lieberman for supporting the move.

“Lieberman fought like a lion for the conversion bill in its preliminary reading, but fell like a fly on this arrangement for kollel students,” Herzog said, referring to last week’s bruising battle over the conversion bill.

“Lieberman and his party proved with their vote today that they are strong when it comes to populism, but that they disappear when it comes to true social and just change.”

During the debate before the vote, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) reportedly shouted, “I have a 27-year-old grandson, who is a student and also does reserve duty and also works in security. What answer can I give him after a decision like this?” Kadima MK Yoel Hasson slammed the move, as did his party.

“This is another Netanyahu exercise that shows contempt for a High Court decision and brings humiliation to the court,” Hasson said. “Netanyahu is lying to students and to IDF soldiers, and bought the support of the haredim with stipends, paid for by the entire public.”

Kadima issued a statement saying that Netanyahu “sold out the Israeli public, is training the draft-dodgers and has turned the IDF from a peoples’ army into the ‘IDF Inc.’” To win the religious parties’ support for the budget, the statement continued, “Netanyahu has chosen the culture of lies at the expense of equality, compelling the public to pay for the cost of his government’s survival.”

The Kadima statement said the decision “evades responsibility, sells out the values of the state and spits in the face of the young generation that serves and contributes to the state.”

MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) complained that the proposal was “extremely unethical and gives a stamp of kashrut to haredi draft evasion.

“This proposal, which makes the lack in equality of burden more permanent, could cause evasion from military service among all of those who are required to enlist,” Orlev said. “It constitutes a danger to national security. That is why I have requested a hearing in my faction to decide to officially oppose the decision.”

Some of the most bitter opposition to the government’s decision was among the nation’s university students, who had opposed continuing subsidies to kollel students while university students did not receive such stipends.

“The students have yet to say their last word, and we are looking into different strategies for continuing [the protest], including legal action,” National Student Union chairman Itzik Shmueli said.

Students’ representatives did not rule out renewing mass protests.

The Movement for Progressive (Reform) Judaism, the Masorti (Conservative) Movement and Hiddush – For Religious Freedom and Equality – all organizations that support religious pluralism in Israel – blasted the decision.

“The government has missed a historic opportunity to fix an error that threatens the future of Israeli society, and chose to ignore the clear position of most of the Israeli public, which is fed up with haredi evasion of both military service and employment,” Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform Movement said.

“One can only hope that the Israeli public will not remain apathetic in light of the dishonesty inherent in the government decision, and will prevent, through its protest, continuing the existing situation.”

Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.

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