Budget woes await Olmert upon his return from US

While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been making his rounds in Washington, back on the home front his coalition still hasn't overcome its teething problems. The first big obstacle, the long-overdue 2006 budget, is still far from its second and third readings. The marathon debate over the budget's various chapters continued on Tuesday with the Knesset Finance Committee members hearing Interior Minister Roni Bar-On's impassioned demand for a raise in his ministry's budget allocation. Committee chairman MK Ya'acov Litzman (UTJ), upon hearing coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki talking during the debate, said to him, "You know that next week you'll be running the meeting and I'll be sitting where you are now." Litzman's warning referred to his ongoing threat to resign his post unless Kadima reaches a coalition agreement with United Torah Judaism. Litzman is now in an unprecedented position as an opposition MK heading the Finance Committee and guiding the government's budget through the legislative procedure. Olmert asked him to stay on as chairman since Litzman is seen as the only MK experienced enough to bulldoze the budget through, given its tight deadline. The budget must be approved in less than four weeks or new elections will be called. Two rabbinical councils that make the main decisions for UTJ are scheduled to meet at the beginning of next week and will decide whether to accept Kadima's proposals for UTJ to join the coalition: the raising of childrens' benefits and assurances that the status quo over state and religion will not change. If their decision is negative, Olmert will have to find a new Finance Committee chairman immediately and get used to working with a slender coalition majority. Adding to the seemingly precarious nature of the coalition are the voices coming from Kadima's main partner, Labor, where two MKs have already walked out of the budget's first reading and even those MKs considered more "stable" have begun speaking out. Labor MK Avishay Braverman charged that the budget "would be a fiasco" but added that he would vote for the budget in accordance with his party's coalition agreement despite his apprehensions over its economic implications. "I feel sad that the coalition agreement we signed could have increased the budget immediately... but we failed to do so," said Braverman. "The Israeli people are going to look at the government and say to themselves that there is all this money, and the government is letting it sit instead of putting it into programs for people in dire need," Braverman said, adding that he would content himself by commencing work on the 2007 budget. "The changes that are being quibbled over to the current budget are peanuts," said Braverman. "In comparison to what we could have accomplished if things had been negotiated differently." Twenty of those "peanuts" are currently being brought up for debate by Labor MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Orit Noked in the Finance Committee. The two compiled a list of reasons why they oppose 20 articles in the Economics Arrangements Bill, which is voted on together with the state budget. Yacimovich and Yoram Marciano, the two MKs who walked out of the first reading, have said that as long as certain changes are made they would support the next reading of the budget. "None of us are one hundred percent happy about the budget, but the behavior of those [two] MKs was childish," said one veteran Labor MK. "Look, if we won the elections we wouldn't have this problem, but we didn't. So we have to make due with the budget there is." The expectation in the Knesset is that the government will have no choice but to remove at least a few of the clauses on the Economics Arrangements Bill in order to ease the passage of the budget. Rumblings are also beginning to emanate from another coalition partner, Shas. The party is angry at Olmert for not assigning responsibilities to two of the party's ministers who are currently without portfolios. Shas's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yossef is especially anxious that Minister Meshulam Nahari be appointed to the Education Ministry and be put in change of haredi education. But despite their criticism of Olmert, Shas leaders on Tuesday were quick to deny reports that they were threatening not to vote for the budget if their demands are not met. Four years ago, Shas ministers who voted against the budget were summarily dismissed by prime minister Ariel Sharon and afterwards groveled their way back into the government. The memory is still bitter and Shas will be extremely reluctant to reach a showdown with Olmert.