Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised during Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting to “find the right balance” between the country’s social and defense needs. He was referring to his commitment to ensure that a program providing free education to preschoolers aged three and four would be implemented when the new school year begins in September.

This is the centerpiece of the Trajtenberg Committee’s recommendations, released as the government’s response to this summer’s socioeconomic demonstrations.

However, providing free pre-school education is not a new idea. In 1984, the Knesset passed a law to this effect. Nearly three decades ago, lawmakers had already reached the conclusion that the move was eminently logical and worth every shekel of taxpayers’ money.

Since it is still usually women who end up staying home taking care of the children, providing pre-school free of charge would enable thousands of mothers to work. And couples would be spared the humiliating exercise of computing whether the added income resulting from mom getting a job would cover, and then some, childcare expenses for the little ones. Free pre-school would be a boon to the middle class, which was overrepresented in this summer’s demonstrations.

Today there are about 300,000 three- and four-yearolds in Israel. Of them, 200,000 are in some sort of public daycare framework and 100,000 of are either at home or in privately arranged frameworks. “Free” preschools and schools, which are often supplemented with various enrichment programs, begin at the age of five.

Though it has been law for some time now, consecutive governments have refrained from footing the bill, accepting the Treasury’s claim that the program was simply too expensive. Indeed, if implemented this coming school year it would cost NIS 2.8 billion for the two first years, and NIS 7.2b. for the first five years, no small sum.

Until Netanyahu publicly committed himself to the program Sunday, implementation was looking increasingly unlikely. Ignoring the Trajtenberg Committee’s recommendation that a NIS 3b. cut in the defense budget be made to fund social programs, the government caved in to Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s masterful exploitation of our most basic existential fears and approved last week an NIS 1.6b. addition to the defense budget needed, according to Barak, to combat the new military threats in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring.

This government has also chosen to ignore the Brodet Committee recommendations – ratified by the government in 2008 – which obligated the IDF to streamline its operations in a way that would save NIS 30b. by 2017, without compromising military capabilities. A Bank of Israel study found that the defense budget for 2011 had exceeded the parameters set by the Brodet Committee by NIS 3b. During the years 2008-2010 the excess was about NIS 1.5b.

Barring a cut in the defense budget, it is unclear how Netanyahu will keep his promise and finally launch the long overdue pre-school program.

Particularly worrying were irresponsible comments made Monday by Knesset Finance Committee chairman MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism.) Gafni claimed that various budget reserves, such as those resulting from unutilized ministry budgets at the end of the fiscal year, could be used to fund socioeconomic initiatives.

At a time when Israel’s external debt-to-GDP ration is about 75% and Bank of Israel and the OECD are forecasting a significant drop in GDP growth from 4.8% to under 3% as a result of the economic crisis in Europe and US’s ongoing slowdown, this is no time to squander our budget reserves.

Our government must truly “find the right balance” between security and social security issues. Strengthening our embattled middle-class and enabling women with young children to get out of the house and into the job market are vital.

A weak and shrinking middle-class means a society with increased income inequality, bigger socioeconomic gaps between the haves and the have nots and a generation of young men and women less well-equipped to meet future challenges, whether they be economic, political, social or military.

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