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Last-minute marathon budget debates are a parliamentary circus every year, but Sunday's Finance Committee session over the five-month-overdue 2006 budget was a farce of a special order.
Committee Chairman Ya'acov Litzman, charged with pushing the budget through to the crucial vote this week in the Knesset plenum, was voting against the clauses he himself was fast-tracking.
Though the budget had been originally drawn up by Binyamin Netanyahu's Finance Ministry almost a year ago, Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, now in the opposition, wryly observed that "I agree with everything in this budget, but I'm voting against it because I don't trust you all," pointing at the coalition MKs. Not that they acted for much of the time as though they were in the same coalition.
MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, the coalition chairman, effectively represented the government in the debate together with a whole team of Finance Ministry officials and tried to wade through the thicket of clauses and sub-clauses, bludgeoning his coalition colleagues to vote in favor of each chapter of the budget bill.
Opposite him sat Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich, also a member of the coalition but already pegged as a dissident over coalition matters. She had something to say about every item, and if she missed something by going outside for a minute she refused to vote with the coalition upon coming back into the committee room. "What are we voting for? I refuse to vote for something I don't understand; explain it to me," she demanded, while the rest of the coalition committee members were already raising their hands.
This prompted Meretz MK Haim Oron to say, "I've got 20 witnesses here... that none of you knew what you voted for."
Litzman, who had once again voted against, answered, "What's new? Do you think that in the past they knew what they were voting about? Nobody leave, this is the best show in town."
In this fashion, the most powerful financial body in the country decided the allocation of billions of shekels in a session that went on into the wee hours of the night.
The day had actually begun with a great success for Yacimovich. After weeks of pressure, she together with colleague Orit Noked (Labor) had succeeded in removing a significant proportion of the economic arrangements bill traditionally passed together with the budget.
Among the 18 clauses that Yacimovich and Noked managed to remove was the adjustment of children's benefits, limits on discharged soldiers' unemployment payments, and the postponement of government funding of distance learning for hospitalized children. Yacimovich called the Litzman- and Yitzhaki-brokered concessions they received "a victory, considering the fact that Olmert at first was unwilling to even consider changing the economic arrangements bill."
One of the committee's veterans observed, "Usually the Finance Ministry manages to pass about 80 percent of the bill and the MKs manage to remove only 20%; this time it was the other way around."
After the major modifications to the bill and the changes made to the budget in accordance with the coalition agreements, there is little doubt that the government will have the required votes to pass the budget this week in its second and third readings, with former Labor rebels Yacimovich and Yoram Marciano voting in favor.
This will at least be a relief for embattled Labor chairman Amir Peretz, who has been battling dissent on two fronts. Beside the budget rebellion, he has to contend with an open challenge by a group of at least five MKs - Matan Vilna'i, Danny Yatom, Avishay Braverman, Ami Ayalon and Collette Avital - who are threatening his control over the party. After a first, "secret" meeting on Friday, they are planning to meet again on Monday at the Knesset before the regular Labor faction meeting.
The next major challenge will be after the summer recess, when the Finance Committee begins debating the 2007 budget. "If it goes on like this," said one Kadima MK, "we don't have much chance of passing the next budget, and, besides, we might have to change the committee chairman."
Litzman, despite enjoying the confidence of the Kadima leadership - and especially Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - has made it clear that he will not remain in his post if Kadima and United Torah Judaism do not finally reach a coalition agreement. He has agreed to shepherd this budget through - despite voting against it in the committee - after repeated requests by Olmert, at the behest of his UTJ colleagues, and after receiving special dispensation from his rabbi, the "Gerrer Rebbe" Ya'acov Alter.
The conclusion of the 2006 budget saga - the longest ever in the country's history - is that Olmert has to broaden his coalition to have any chance of passing the next one. He can't possibly continue to rely on Labor in financial matters and he can't risk losing his government over his first budget, even before the big battle over realignment has begun.