Government approves free education plan

Jerusalem: 21 ministers vote in favor, 8 against; free education plan to be funded by across-the-board budget cuts.

By JPOST.COM STAFF, GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
January 8, 2012 18:42
4 minute read.
Steinitz (L), Netanyahu, Sa'ar at edu. press

Steinitz (L), Netanyahu, Sa'ar at edu. press conference_311. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)

The government approved a plan on Sunday to provide free education for children between the ages three and four, despite some opposition to the bill within the coalition.

The government convened to vote on the plan Sunday evening, where 21 ministers voted in favor and 8 voted against.

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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu obtained a majority for the proposal when his chief of staff, Natan Eshel, reached an agreement with Shas that secured the party's support. The party's four ministers voted in favor because cutbacks to the Shas-controlled Interior and Construction and Housing ministries were restored.

The five Israel Beiteinu ministers and three from Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Independence faction voted against the decision. Barak opposed the move due to cuts in his ministry's budget and because the Finance Ministry refused to break the budget framework.

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Lieberman said his party's ministers voted no because Arab and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children were not excluded. He said the benefits should only be given to children with two working parents who served in the IDF.

"There is no need to fund Islamic Movement activists in Um el-Fahm and Sikrikim [haredi extremists] in Beit Shemesh," he said.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) responded that the benefits were "for all children, regardless of who their parents are and what they do."

Netanyahu also faced criticism from United Torah Judaism, which doesn't have a minister. UTJ's Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman complained that Netanyahu, who holds the title of health minister, was cutting NIS 16 million from his own budget.

The prime minister's Likud rival, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, voted in favor after a substantial cut to his Negev and Galilee Development Ministry was restored. But earlier, he fiercely attacked the decision, calling it "delusional and contemptible" and warning that it would deal a severe blow to the weakest sectors of the population.

He said the periphery would not benefit from the decision, because most of its development towns already have free education, but it would be harmed by cutbacks to his ministry.

"The children of [Negev development towns like] Dimona and Sderot will in effect fund free education for the children of [wealthy communities like] Caesarea and Savyon," Shalom said. "This is an absurd move that goes against common sense."

Shalom hinted that the cuts to his ministry were political, saying "there are those who want to assassinate me politically." Asked by Israel Radio whether he would quit the cabinet in response to the cut, he said "it could be that there are those who would want me to do that."

At the height of the stormy debate over the budget cuts, Steinitz got into a shouting match with IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz. When Gantz interrupted a Finance Ministry official who was explaining the cuts to the IDF, Steinitz said that a soldier in uniform cannot make political statements.

Gantz responded by telling Steinitz that he should show more respect to the IDF.

Last week, Netanyahu announced that the defense budget would be cut, along with those of all other ministries, in order to fund free education from age three.

Lieberman said on Friday that Netanyahu's plan is "insufficiently level-headed and examined, and was made haphazardly."

"The easiest thing to do is to cut all of the ministries, and take from health, welfare and public security, but in that way, many citizens will be harmed," he explained.

Lieberman suggested that ministries' budgetary surpluses be used to fund early childhood education, instead of transferring them to defense expenses.

Lahav Harkov contributed to this report


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