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"We won't give up on this, no matter what," new Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, responding to the Treasury's plan to slash the benefits budget, including a now-canceled 20 percent cut to absorption stipends.
Edri's promise comes after this weekend's news that the Finance Ministry plans to significantly reduce the ministry's budget.
But the Finance Ministry initiative, which is set to be formalized when the cabinet meets to approve the 2008 state budget on August 5, includes other cuts to olim benefits that have not been canceled.
Edri became Immigrant Absorption Minister earlier this month, replacing current Interior Minister Ze'ev Boim. Asked if the surprise attempt to so drastically cut the immigrant absorption budget was due to his takeover of the ministry - Boim is a close ally of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - Edri denied any political considerations.
"The Finance Ministry wants to cut everywhere it can. It's not political. And if it is, they've tested me and they're finding out that I fight," he said.
The plan included a 20% cut in the "absorption basket," a six-month stipend meant to cover living expenses from the day an oleh arrives in Israel. This cut has since been canceled, following an angry letter from Edri to Prime Minister's Office director-general Ra'anan Dinur, who announced on Friday that Olmert had decided to order the Finance Ministry to cancel the reduction.
For a person who makes aliya on their own, the stipend is currently about NIS 2,600 per month, while an average family of four gets around NIS 7,200. The cut would have brought the four-member family's monthly allowance down to approximately NIS 5,800.
With this money, new immigrants pay rent, utilities, transportation, their children's school fees and other living expenses while they study Hebrew in an ulpan instead of working.
A 20% cut would have been "a death blow to aliya" and "a mortal blow to the most important aid that new olim receive," according to Immigrant Absorption Ministry director-general Erez Halfon. He has vowed the ministry would push for legislation increasing the absorption basket by 25%.
The current Treasury plan calls to cancel the grants for electrical appliances given to olim from low income countries in Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and Asia. The grants, which range from NIS 500 to NIS 3,000.
In addition, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry said, cuts are also planned to public housing for olim, making it more difficult for disabled and elderly immigrants, as well as single-parent families, to qualify for the inexpensive housing.
For veteran Israelis to qualify for public housing, they must be elderly, disabled or a single-parent family with at least three children, and must earn a low income. For olim, the criteria of income and number of children are waived, but the 2008 state budget would seek to impose them on olim, as well. Olim currently comprise some 30% of those living in public housing.
Finally, the Finance Ministry plan calls for the cancellation of the NIS 90 million KAMEA program, which helps integrate scientists and researchers from abroad into Israeli academia. The Finance Ministry reportedly sought to eliminate this program completely, saying that the government was already increasing its absorption package for scientists through implementation of the Shochat Committee's recommendations, announced earlier this month. But the Shochat recommendations, according to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, only apply to academic faculty, a status few olim attain.
These cuts are still part of the current draft of the 2008 state budget, and Halfon has called an "emergency meeting" of oleh groups and MKs for Thursday, to plan ways to fight the reductions.
The Finance Ministry said it did not comment on "rumors" before the budget was presented to the cabinet.