The Knesset authorized the 2015/16 state budget in its first reading on Wednesday, with 57 MKs in favor and 53 opposed.
“This budget is not just accounting; it is a matter of values,” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said, presenting his flagship legislation to the Knesset. “Behind the numbers and articles there are people, a concern for their education and health and improving their lives. This is a budget that brings good news and a new order of priorities.
“This nation deserves change. We are starting to fix social injustices. The time has come for equal opportunities.
The biggest threat to Israel is growing social gaps,” he said.
After more than eight hours of debate, a majority of MKs present voted for the budget, which applies to December 2015 and all of 2016. The budget is to go to the Knesset Finance Committee, which will review it and make changes, and is scheduled to go to final votes in the plenum on November 20.
Minutes before the budget was supposed to go to a vote, Shas MKs were absent from the Knesset and meeting with their party chairman, Economy Minister Arye Deri, in his ministry office. Weeks earlier, Deri and Kahlon reached a compromise in which the former’s election promise of zero value-added tax on all basic food items was replaced with canceling VAT on water and electricity for the poorest 40 percent of the population, as well as on public transportation for all. Deri was outraged to find out that this was not in the text that was being brought to a vote and threatened not to have any of his MKs vote for it.
Meanwhile, the task of saving the budget by giving a long, meandering speech to kill time while Deri negotiated was given to Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen of Shas, ironically, a close ally of Deri.
After nearly an hour, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman agreed to offset Deri’s absence by not voting, and the rest of Shas’s MKs returned to the plenum and voted in favor of the budget. However, Deri said that if zero VAT for the poor is not added to the budget before its final votes, Shas’s seven lawmakers will not vote for it.
Speaking to the Knesset, Kahlon said, “The budget serves society, instead of society serving the budget.”
The finance minister said there are surpluses from tax collection, a statement that brought surprised murmurs from MKs in light of the cuts to most ministries’ budgets. Kahlon admitted that “something doesn’t make sense and the things are being checked... if we are sure [that there are surpluses], they will be used for the good of Israel’s citizens.”
Pointing to a slowdown in growth in the economy, Kahlon said the budget takes steps to reverse that trend.
To the opposition, he said he is not naive and doesn’t think they will vote for the budget, “but support the things you believe in; don’t be destructive just because you’re in the opposition.”
The minister admitted that things are more difficult in a 61-seat coalition and called for MKs to behave responsibly to create an Israel with “equality, compassion and mutual responsibility.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) opened his response by asking with incredulity: “You call this a budget? This is how you translated the hope that you promised the nation in the last election? I’m asking you [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu – for this budget you dismantled the last government and went to an election? “You promised that this time you’ll be concerned with the cost of living and the cost of housing; this time you’ll take care of it; this time you’ll notice the distress of the people of Israel; this time you’ll be personally responsible for it,” Herzog said to Netanyahu. “You’re making the people of Israel laugh.”
Herzog wondered why Kahlon left the Likud to form his own party if this is his disappointing budget.
“You promised hope. You promised a home. You promised a war on the cost of living, on the banks, on the bloated defense budget. You promised a giant reform in natural gas. You promised and promised and promised,” he said.
“After 100 days [in office], what is left of your promises, Moshe Kahlon, is one big balloon that exploded,” Herzog said.
After Herzog, nearly all of the opposition’s MKs gave speeches on their objections to the budget, yet it was the coalition that was a bigger concern for Kahlon, not only because of Shas’s antics, but because of demands from other coalition legislators.
Knesset Interior Committee chairman David Amsalem, Deputy Construction Minister Jackie Levy and Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee chairman Abraham Naguise, all Likud members, demanded that the party make its socioeconomic agenda known. They said the budget must include an emergency room in Kiryat Shmona, bringing more Jews from Ethiopia to Israel, setting aside funds to rehabilitate neighborhoods in the periphery, reducing VAT on life-saving medication and lowering the price of water.
Even MKs in Kahlon’s own Kulanu Party had complaints, with Tali Ploskov calling not to cut tax benefits to residents of Arad, Bet She’an, the Eilot region, Hatzor Haglilit and the Arava region.
Ploskov pointed out that 400 residents of Arad were recently fired, including her husband, and said canceling the benefits would be a “death blow” to them. She said she met with Kahlon and has his support to bring the benefits back.
MK Oren Hazan (Likud) reportedly considered voting against the budget in response to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon calling the former an embarrassment to the Likud and refusing to participate in party events with him, but ended up voting in favor of the budget and settling for giving a fiery speech calling for Netanyahu to fire Ya’alon, saying that “the king has no clothes” and that the defense minister does not sufficiently protect residents of Judea and Samaria.
“He’ll start packing,” a source close to Ya’alon responded sarcastically