Budget battle focuses on defense cuts

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Netanyahu cabinet meeting 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Netanyahu cabinet meeting 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
With Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promising the cabinet that budget cuts impacting the country's weakest sectors will be canceled, the fight shifted on Sunday to the proposed reductions in defense spending. Before the cabinet meeting on Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that overnight talks between himself, Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz continued until 3 a.m., and warned again of "a deep political crisis" if the outstanding issues were not resolved. "We have disagreements on basic issues concerning the country's security, its future and the socioeconomic fabric of the State of Israel," said Barak. "I am convinced that under the current conditions there is no alternative to expanding the budget to meet the needs on both sides." The Labor Party chairman found a rare ally in National Union MK Arye Eldad, who accused Steinitz of overseeing cuts to the defense budget, to items for which he had fought while serving on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "Likud MKs apparently suffer from chronic vision problems that are impacted by the chairs upon which they sit," Eldad said. "I have no doubt that Steinitz knows well that it is necessary to increase the security budget. What is worrisome is that there is a deep rift between what Steinitz knows and believes and what he does in practice." Netanyahu kicked off the weekly cabinet meeting by reiterating that a number of the proposed budget cuts would not go ahead and that more could be reduced if a deal was reached with the Histadrut Labor Federation. Histadrut and Treasury representatives continued to meet later Sunday in efforts to reach an agreement. But although Netanyahu hoped this would placate Shas and Labor, the Shas ministers, according to one Finance Ministry official, reiterated their demand that Netanyahu uphold their coalition agreement, which calls for an increase to child allotments. The clock continues to tick towards the Tuesday deadline, when the cabinet is supposed to vote on the budget. Meanwhile, Kadima MKs criticized party leader Tzipi Livni on Sunday, saying she made a mistake by trading the chairmanship of the Knesset Economics Committee for that of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. They said that they could have used the Economic Affairs Committee to prevent the most problematic elements of the budget from passing, but now all they could do "is squawk in the opposition." They said that Livni made the decision without a faction vote, and stressed that "she should start acting like the opposition leader." The chairmanship of the Economic Affairs Committee usually goes to the leading opposition party, but instead went to MK Ophir Akunis, a former Netanyahu aide, in a bid to keep the economic policy close to home. It was agreed that the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee would remain chaired by Kadima's Tzahi Hanegbi, after no Labor MK was willing to take the post. Popular opposition to the proposed budget also continued on Sunday, with Tel Aviv University students staging a strike and protest at mid-day. Later on Sunday, both the Union of Local Authorities and the Students Union announced that they would also strike later this week to protest the expected cuts to the education budget.