Netanyahu: We are making education a top priority

PM defends budget cuts to fund pre-school education; says defense budget should not be cut, it should be increased.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday defended his plan to provide free education for children ages three and four by enacting across-the-board budget cuts to a number of government ministries.
Speaking at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that his plan established that "education is important, and benefits to young couples and families and security are essential, and we will change our priorities accordingly."
The prime minister, who has faced resistance to the plan from ministers in his coalition, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, said that "no decision is easy. Decisions like this are always difficult and painful, but that is the meaning of leadership. You cannot say that 'everything is important.'"
Netanyahu said, however, that  "not only can we not cut the security budget, but we must increase it."
RELATED:Netanyahu pledges free toddler education in fall Steinitz: Defense to give up NIS 700m. to education
The prime minister stated that the strategic changes occurring in the Middle East have consequences "for the national security of the State of Israel, for our ability to deal with the new challenges that we face, in new areas, over new weapons, and over the question of regional stability and instability.  All of these have been taking place in recent months and we must draw the necessary conclusions."
The cabinet was set to discuss Netanyahu's budget proposals during the weekly meeting.
The Prime Minister's Office, however, said that the issue of education funding was unlikely to be brought to a vote in Sunday's meeting. Government officials were quoted by Israeli media as saying that the issue would probably not be decided upon in one meeting, and would likely require further discussion.
Netanyahu met with Lieberman Saturday night in an attempt to persuade him to support his proposal. During the meeting, Lieberman reportedly reiterated that he will vote against the prime minister's proposal when it is brought to a ministerial vote.
Lieberman first expressed his position on Friday, speaking at at Israel Beiteinu headquarters in Jerusalem. He said that while he supports free education for all children from the age of six months, he believes that the policy should only apply to families in which both parents work and served in the army. He explained that people can in this way pay for the education via taxes and their service to the country.
"A state's power is not only measured by its advanced weaponry, but also by its soldiers' motivation, so they know that the state will take care of them after they serve," Lieberman told his party's municipal committee. "Our goal should be to alleviate the burden on those who served in the army and pay taxes, and carry all of [the country's] weight on their backs."
At the same time, the foreign minister said, the state should not fund "extremist groups" such as Islamic Movement supporters or anti-government haredi groups such as Sikrikim and Neturei Karta.
Last week, Netanyahu announced that the defense budget would be cut, along with those of all other ministries, in order to fund free education from age three.
Lieberman said on Friday that Netanyahu's plan is "insufficiently level-headed and examined, and was made haphazardly."
"The easiest thing to do is to cut all of the ministries, and take from health, welfare and public security, but in that way, many citizens will be harmed," he explained.
Lieberman suggested that ministries' budgetary surpluses be used to fund early childhood education, instead of transferring them to defense expenses.
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report