Just when it appeared that the final obstacles delaying Finance Committee approval of the 2007 budget had been removed, a new wrench was thrown in the works when committee chairman Ya'acov Litzman refused to allow the vote Monday after Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson failed to appear for the session.
Meanwhile, there was also other budgetary wrangling, when coalition member Shas and United Torah Judaism of the opposition torpedoed an attempt by Education Minister Yuli Tamir to exclude non-state pre-schools, most of which are haredi, from long school day funding.
In addition to the problems caused by Litzman and Shas, MKs Avishai Braverman, Shelly Yacimovic and Orit Noked, the three Labor rebels who oppose the NIS 1.8b. cuts to the budget, left a meeting with Hirschson Sunday unconvinced that they were necessary.
As Finance Committee chairman, Litzman - whose United Torah Judaism party is not a member of the coalition - enjoys the power to delay the vote on the budget.
"Members of the committee want the minister to explain the need for the proposed NIS 1.8 billion cut just like he explained them to Labor MKs," said Litzman, who opposes making any cuts, arguing the money can be financed from budget reserves or increasing the budget deficit.
The NIS 1.8b. cut means a 6% across-the-board reduction in all ministry budgets except Education. The money would be used to fund military costs accrued during the war in Lebanon.
MK Amnon Cohen (Shas), a member of the Finance Committee, joined Litzman in opposing a vote on the proposed cuts until Hirchson appears before the committee. However Shas chairman Eli Yishai supports the cuts in principle, claiming they are essential and the price that must be paid after a war. The government is therefore expected to eventually muster a majority in the Finance Committee for ratifying the budget on condition Hirchson appears as Litzman demands.
To win the vote, the government may also be forced to switch Braverman, Noked and Yacimovic with coalition MKs who support the budget.
An obvious solution to the delays caused by Litzman - the vote on the budget has been put off four times - would be to switch him as well. However, he claimed that the government could not forcibly remove him as chairman. "The High Court would reject it immediately," said Litzman, who rescheduled the vote for Wednesday on condition Hirchson appeared before the committee.
Hirchson could not be reached for comment, but sources told The Jerusalem Post that he had a cold which might explain his absence. However, other sources noted the finance minister arrived for work as usual in the Treasury.
Meanwhile, Shas and UTJ waged a war in the Education Committee against what they called discrimination against haredi pre-schools, with MK Haim Amsalem (Shas) and Moshe Gafni (UTJ) managing to delay the vote on funding for a long school day in those institutions.
"We cannot approve built-in injustice against children who happen to belong to a particular school system." Amsalem said, adding that Shas contributed NIS 23m. of its coalition agreement funds to finance a long school day for all pre-schools, both religious and secular. The Treasury matched that sum, bringing the total to NIS 46m. "Now Tamir is trying to exclude Shas's schools from the funding," Amsalem explained.
Tamir is attempting to strengthen state schools, which cater to all walks of Israeli society without socioeconomic discrimination, at the expense of private schools. However, her move inadvertently hurt hundreds of haredi pre-schools, which are also private but which serve a large percentage of low income families.
Both private schools and haredi education are classified as "recognized but not official" which means they receive relatively less state funding, but also enjoy more freedom to choose student body and curriculum. Speaking at an education conference on Sunday, Tamir said she decided to dry up funding to private schools because they perpetuated inequalities. "We are checking the legal aspects of the issue," said Tamir.
Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this story.