Budget passes 1st Knesset reading

68 MKs in favor, 38 against; Labor "rebels" meant to oppose, but changed minds.

The 2007 state budget appears well on its way to being approved before the December 31 deadline. The budget draft and its accompanying economic arrangements bill passed the first of three Knesset readings Tuesday night in a 68-38 vote. The current version totals NIS 295.4 billion and is expected to undergo several changes in the Knesset Finance Committee before being presented for second and third readings. For the past three years, the Knesset has been unable to pass the budget by December 31, forcing the state to operate on basis of the previous year's budget. If the budget is not approved by March 31, the government falls and early elections are held. In 2006, the Knesset set a record by taking until June 7 to pass the budget in the aftermath of national elections. "We need to stop this habit of failing the country and failing our people by failing to pass a budget on time," Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson said Tuesday. Just two weeks ago, political officials were forecasting a storm over the 2007 budget, with several predicting that the government would fail to get it past a first vote. That discussion ended, however, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert added Israel Beiteinu, with its 11 Knesset seats, to the coalition. "The fact that the budget passed its first reading by a wide majority is an expression of the stability of the government and coalition," said coalition chairman MK Avigdor Yitzhaki (Kadima). Several of the "Labor rebels," who had threatened to torpedo the budget before Israel Beiteinu came on board, ended their revolt quietly Tuesday night. MKs Orit Noked, Yoram Marciano and Shelly Yacimovich had all argued against the budget but they changed their minds and voted with their party. The only MK to continue their rebellion was MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima), who also voted against the 2006 budget because she did not feel enough funds had been directed to social welfare programs. "I plan, with a heavy heart, to vote for the budget," said Yacimovich. "But I will fight with all my might in the Finance Committee to make sure that significant changes are made before I cast my next vote." The budget and the economic arrangements bill now move to the Knesset Finance Committee before returning for a second and third vote. "I had planned to wage a war on poverty with this budget. Instead we had to fight a different war and save our battle with poverty for next year," Hirchson said when he presented the budget to the Knesset Monday. During the two-day debate, 74 MKs, mostly from the opposition, spoke on the plenum floor. Much of the criticism leveled at the government focused on promises made by Olmert's administration during the last election campaign. "During the elections you promised a country that would be fun to live in. Your government, you and the finance minister, owe the public an explanation for this merciless budget," said MK Limor Livnat (Likud).