(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A bill pushed by Shas to exempt more religious-use buildings from local taxes passed its first reading on Wednesday. In response, opposition members did not focus their anger on Shas legislators but rather on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Kadima MKs complained that Wednesday's bill was merely the latest in a series of legislation from Shas that would financially benefit the party's activists and constituents.
Following a contentious role call vote, the coalition passed, by 60 to 24, the first reading of the amendment sponsored by MK Nissim Ze'ev (Shas) that would extend the exemption from municipal taxes. The exemption is already granted to houses of worship of all religions.
Ze'ev's bill would extend that exemption to include "synagogues that in addition to being used for worship, the building or the sanctuary of the synagogue is also used as a study center or where activities that advance Torah culture are held."
But the opposition called foul, arguing that the law simply created a loophole by which any building containing a "synagogue" and sometimes used for prayers would enjoy a tax exemption.
"Just like the 'Jobs Bill,' just like the 'Deputy Mayor Bill,' you want to exploit the local governments in order to advance a political agenda. This has no connection to Judaism, but rather to corruption," MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said.
"You [Shas] are once again taking advantage and doing what you need to do and what you represent, but my complaints about you are minimal in the face of my complaint regarding the prime minister, who bears the responsibility in a personal manner for all of these things that are happening within your coalition and your government - you [Netanyahu] are a puppet in the hands of Shas," complained MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) after the bill passed.
In the current Knesset session, argued opposition MKs, Shas has attempted to pass a series of bills that would directly benefit - through funding or through jobs - individuals and organizations close to the party.
Two weeks ago, under growing public pressure, Shas was forced to withdraw the so called Jobs Bill, which would have created additional deputy mayor positions allegedly designed to reward party insiders.
The bill would have allowed for the appointment of additional paid deputy mayors in cities with more than 200,000 residents and that are not in debt. The cost to the public purse would have been about NIS 1 million per year per additional deputy mayor.
The "Jobs Bill," like the bill that advanced on Wednesday, had already cleared its first Knesset hurdle due to coalition discipline before it had to be withdrawn.
A second bill that was supposed to be voted upon on Wednesday, in which Shas seeks state funding for a center to preserve the legacy of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira (1890-1984), a kabbalist known as "Baba Sali," was not brought to the plenum, after the Likud and Shas agreed to pull the measure until they could reach a compromise.
Even fellow coalition members are skeptical regarding other Shas-initiated bills that have reached the Knesset in recent months.
One case that engendered the hostility of senior coalition MKs was a law approved in November that effectively disenfranchised the Abu Basma Regional Council in the Negev. The council, complained a Likud official, is currently run by a Shas-affiliated administrator named Amram Kalachi. All newly established councils are given a four-year trial period before elections are held, and that period can be extended to six years with the agreement of the interior minister (currently Shas chairman Eli Yishai) and the Knesset's Interior Committee.
That six-year period for the Abu Basma Council has ended, but the law sponsored by Shas eliminated any deadline for holding elections in newly formed councils, including Abu Basma, on the grounds that the council is "not yet ready" for elections.
The bill, which was passed in the Shas-controlled Interior Committee, has drawn promises of High Court challenges from Adallah, the Legal Center for the Rights of the Arab Minority in Israel.
Yet another bill, complained another Knesset official, is currently being prepared in the Finance Committee, and would seek further tax benefits for Shas-affiliated charities.
Even Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) attacked Shas during a Knesset debate on Wednesday, calling it "the jobs party."
"What an embarrassment, I am even embarrassed on your behalf," said Gafni, referring to Shas's willingness to participate in organizations such as the Histadrut labor federation in order to ensure more "jobs" for its supporters.