Shas concerned Labor will fold on budget

Olmert aides: Barak will remain in his position even if Labor ministers oppose budget proposal.

state-religion survey 224 (photo credit:)
state-religion survey 224
(photo credit: )
In a game of political "chicken" in advance of Sunday's cabinet vote on the 2009 state budget, Shas promised Tuesday to remain steadfast in its demands and expressed concern that Labor Party ministers would eventually waver in their opposition to both budget options presented by Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On. Channel 10 reported late Tuesday night that Kadima and Labor had reached a deal under which the latter would support the budget proposal. Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak's vehement opposition to the budget, voiced following last Sunday's cabinet meeting, put him on a collision course with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but on Tuesday, both sides played down the strife between the two party leaders. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor) eagerly offered a description of a Tuesday-morning phone call between Olmert and Barak that he said had helped to ease the tension. Sources close to Barak said the conversation had focused on Barak's trip to Egypt, and added that Barak had reiterated to the prime minister that his party's opposition to the budget was not meant as a personal affront to Olmert. The reports on the conversation helped to dispel rumors that Olmert had been considering removing Barak from his post of defense minister as a punishment for insubordination. In the meantime, senior Labor officials said the party wanted to postpone the cabinet vote on the budget until after the Kadima primary on September 17, when it would inevitably be a key point of negotiations between the new Kadima leader and the parties that he or she sought to bring into the next coalition. On Monday evening, the Labor faction determined that it would vote against the 2009 budget in its current form and instead support the recommendation of Finance Committee chairman Avishai Braverman, who said Labor should demand an increase of 2.5 percent to the budget instead of the Finance Ministry's proposed 1.7%. After Barak's conversation with Olmert, Barak's associates said the Labor chairman had received the impression that the prime minister would agree in principle to the 2.5% increase to the budget, but said the Treasury was tying his hands. Shas ministers were wary of the warming-up of relations between the Kadima and Labor leaders on Tuesday, expressing concern that this could be the beginning of a deal that would end with Labor supporting the budget. "We value the fact that Labor woke up and realized the implications of the budget," one Shas official said, "but we hope that they maintain their current stance until Sunday." In the past, Labor ministers have rescinded opposition on critical votes at the last minute, the official said. "We hope they understand that this supporting the budget is not a political question, but rather a social one." Shas representatives, however, would not confirm rumors that they had been holding talks with Labor to help organize multi-party opposition to the budget among cabinet ministers. Shas thus far has maintained a clear line of opposition to the budget, refusing to support a budget that does not restore cuts to child allotments and confront inflation - two issues that are critical to the working-class voters that the party courts in general elections. Shas members said they had received data indicating that should the budget pass in either of its current forms, an additional 20,000 children would fall below the poverty line. To that end, Shas is one of the parties signed on to a call for a special session of the Knesset plenum on Wednesday to discuss what it terms "draconian cuts to the budgets for welfare, health and education, and the return of the threat of inflation." During the session, Shas will join forces with social-welfare allies in the opposition, including Meretz, Hadash, Balad and the United Arab List. Even fellow coalition member Gil Pensioners Party participated in the petition to discuss the Interior Ministry's decision to reduce the membership of local councils.