Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have found an easy way out of his coalition woes on Wednesday when United Torah Judaism offered him a parliamentary safety net on votes of no-confidence in his government.
According to the proposal UTJ MK Avraham Ravitz offered Olmert, instead of having to add a party to the coalition, Olmert could receive the votes of UTJ's six MKs on key votes in return for the passage of the Haredi Education bill. The bill, which would cost the government hundreds of thousands of shekels a year, calls for equalizing the funding provided for haredi education with students in the state school systems.
Olmert responded positively to the proposal, which now awaits the approval of the Finance Ministry and United Torah Judaism's rabbis. If the rabbis endorse the deal, Ravitz will negotiate a timetable for passing the bill within three months.
While Olmert and Ravitz spoke only about no-confidence motions, Ravitz said UTJ would consider also voting in favor of the 2007 state budget if it reaches the March 31 deadline when the government would fall automatically without its passage.
A Kadima official said in response that if the deal would make up for the Labor Party's lack of coalition discipline without costing too much, it would be welcome. But it is likely that Education Minister Yuli Tamir would protest the deal, because the haredi education system does not comply with the ministry's basic requirements and standards.
A source in the Prime Minister's Office said it was unlikely that the deal would come to fruition.
Olmert had been hoping that UTJ would join the coalition and that Ravitz would take the vacant welfare portfolio. Ravitz said the Agudat Yisrael faction within his party was unwilling to join the coalition without a hefty rise in child welfare payments.
"It's up to the prime minister to decide whether to restart the coalition negotiations and accept Agudat Yisrael's demands on the child welfare payments," Ravitz said. "If not, this is another alternative." Ravitz had intended to recommend to Olmert that Defense Minister Amir Peretz be appointed welfare minister. But Ravitz decided to wait with the idea until he spoke to Peretz about it.
In order to make the Welfare Ministry lucrative enough to be headed by the chairman of the Labor Party, Ravitz suggested adding vast powers and funding to form a new "super-portfolio," which would head a socioeconomic cabinet with real power.
"There has to be a minister to fight for welfare," Ravitz said. "The Welfare Ministry should be the third most important ministry after Defense and Education. Welfare is like the weather. Everyone complains about it and no one does anything about it."
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