Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had reason to smile Thursday night after the two managed, together with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, to push through a budget cut of NIS 2 billion in order to raise the Defense Ministry budget for the next two years.
It took days of intensive negotiation this week to reach the point Thursday morning at which all ministers other than Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz and Shas's cabinet representatives voted in favor of the 2-percent across-the-board cut.
"We had to rethink our set of priorities to accommodate the budget cut of NIS 2b. without hurting the recovery of the economy," explained a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office. "It was a difficult decision, but necessary."
All government ministries apart from the Defense Ministry and the Education Ministry will suffer the cut this and next year. It encompasses 20% of the cost of the coalition commitments made to the Likud and other parties.
The extra budget generated will be directed toward immediate concerns - NIS 1.5b. to the defense budget and an additional NIS 500 million to the Health Ministry to fund the national response to the global swine flu epidemic. The cuts will not, however, impact funds for Holocaust survivors, the elderly and the disabled, or national projects including adding new classrooms for pupils.
"The decision over the cuts affecting the coalition commitments was the most difficult," said the official, "but the parties have to understand that under every coalition agreement, there is a more important shekel and a less important shekel."
The negotiations revealed relative strengths and weaknesses among the key ministers. When Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar threatened to resign, a compromise was reached Thursday afternoon that the ministry's budget would now be cut in 2010, not 2009, and only by 1% - 75% less than had initially been proposed.
On Wednesday, Sa'ar - an up-and-coming leader within Netanyahu's own party - said his ministry's budget had reached "a red line, like the Kinneret," and that he didn't know if he could remain in his position if the initially-proposed cut were implemented.
Among those forced to swallow the bitter pill, however, was Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who forcibly opposed any cut to what he said were his already cash-strapped forces. But Aharonovitch and his fellow Israel Beiteinu ministers ultimately voted in favor of the cuts, despite the implications for their coalition agreement. MKs from the party avoided any in-depth discussion of the topic Thursday, saying that they knew Aharonovitch vehemently opposed the cut, but that party discipline mandated that they concur with the government's decision.
The opposition was quick to respond to the government's decision, with Kadima spokesman Shmulik Dahan blasting the "disconnected prime minister who is leading a disconnected government."
"Netanyahu chose to grossly trample education, welfare, aliya and internal security without taking a single agora from the budgets of ministers and ministries of nothing," declared Dahan. "This sends a worrisome message that Netanyahu's political survival, the cynicism of Labor ministers who simply guard their seats and have given up even trying to appear as struggling for their values, and the zigzags of the education minister, managed to defeat the public good of Israeli citizens."
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.