It must be budget crunch time at the Knesset

Late nights. Deadlock. Fast food.

July 9, 2009 22:54
3 minute read.
It must be budget crunch time at the Knesset

knesset full 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

In the late hours of the night, lights burned brightly in the Treasury. Some of the most powerful figures in Israel's economy - Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Histadrut leader Ofer Eini and Manufacturers' Association chairman Shraga Brosh - sat trying to reach a historic agreement regarding the budget's future. Impasse. Pizza. Behind the political grandstanding and impassioned pronouncements, months of behind-the-scenes groundwork are expected to come to a conclusion next week, when the coalition is almost certain to vote nearly unanimously in favor of the first biennial budget in its second and third readings. Since the February elections, Finance Ministry employers have worked at a frenetic pace, sometimes around the clock, to prepare budget suggestions for the minister's review, and afterward to prepare the budget itself for its Knesset battle. And for the most part, they are doing it on empty stomachs. The Finance Ministry cafeteria, smaller than its massive Knesset counterpart across the street, is only open until 3 p.m., and workers who frequently left in recent months well after 9 p.m. were forced to resort to delivery services. Hence the image that speaks louder than words - Eini, Steinitz and Brosh, on multiple occasions, hammering out their deals over pizza and cola. In the initial stages, before the budget is presented to the Knesset, a parade of ministers and interest groups traipsed their way to the vine-covered Treasury building to ask for more cash. One minister, upon hearing that ministers' salaries would be reduced, requested with a straight face that Steinitz rethink his plan of a 10% decrease, in favor of a more modest amount - 1%. And the complaints did not end there. One Likud minister upbraided Steinitz for passing the law on the biennial budget before the Knesset restarted in full force following the Pessah break. Even the logistics at that stage seemed to challenge the budget's underpinnings, as the Treasury was forced to replace its budget-related computer programs, which were incapable of processing biennial budgets. But the work only became more intense after the thick copies of the budget and the Economics Arrangements Bill reached the Knesset in May. Treasury officials found themselves criss-crossing the traffic circle between their offices and the Knesset driveway, as coalition and opposition MKs took aim at unpopular clauses. Finance Ministry workers and coalition officials had already brought bags to work containing a change of clothes for the next day - in advance of the traditional opposition filibuster on the night of the Knesset's first vote - when the opposition chose to boycott the vote instead. The bill sailed through the vote and was broken up and distributed to the committees, which are still discussing it, the Finance Committee first and foremost among them. Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni (UTJ) is known for his deep understanding of budget procedure and is popularly considered one of the most budget-savvy parliamentarians. However, even his years of experience did not prevent coalition members from closing deals with the government behind his back, such as the one brokered Wednesday by Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Attias. Almost every Knesset committee and subcommittee has been pressed into work, going clause by clause on relevant passages, with MKs sitting on multiple committees literally running up and down the committee wing's stairs to be present during all of the key votes. Clauses are changed, removed, updated and eventually ratified in a breathtaking whirlwind of hearings, at times even held parallel to the plenum sessions. When Steinitz stopped in at the Knesset cafeteria in the midst of it all Wednesday, reporters pressed him on the horse-trading behind the scenes, then stopped for a minute to ask him if he and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were enjoying the watermelon they were sharing in the busy lunchroom. "It's good," said the usually straight-laced minister, "but it would taste better if there were a VAT on it." All of the action will come to a head next week, when opposition and coalition MKs alike prepare for a filibuster, once again packing bags and preparing to catch a few minutes' sleep on a sofa or a desk. And yet, pizzas and colas and sleepless nights notwithstanding, the budget will almost inevitably pass, giving all those responsible for the process an opportunity to rest, regroup and start work toward the same process in another two years.

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