Coalition partners threaten to topple gov't over budget

Despite the Finance Ministry's last-minute changes to the 2007 budget, the coalition partners Tuesday reiterated their threats to quit the government. Labor, Shas, and the Gil Pensioners Party all threatened to leave the coalition despite Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson's attempts to appease them by canceling the raise in university tuition. Those parties have continued to complain that Hirchson's budget adversely affects the socio-economic programs they parties fought over in their coalition agreements. "We will pass a budget that answers our security needs and our socio-economic needs and will rebuild the North," swore Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to activists at the Kadima branch in Tiberias. "In Kadima, we don't believe in being a single-issue party; we believe we can fund security needs and socio-economic needs." His coalition partners, however, were skeptical he current budget could be sufficiently amended to appease them, even after private meetings at the Finance Ministry. Shas chairman Eli Yishai met Tuesday afternoon with Hirchson and left the meeting saying that Shas could not support he budget in its current form, He said the Finance Ministry must eliminate cutbacks in child welfare payments and in his Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. "The budget, principally the attached arrangements bill, is a continuation of the policies of [Binyamin] Netanyahu. The bill includes a poison swamp of privatization of services and harming the weak," said MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), who serves on the Finance Committee. While in the past Yacimovich broke with party line to vote against budgetary measures, on Tuesday it appeared clear the Labor Party would back her in slamming the 2007 budget. "[Chairman Amir] Peretz has made it clear to the party that this budget is unacceptable," said one of his aides. He added that Peretz said that if the freeze on the minimum wage were not lifted, it would "certainly cause Labor to leave the coalition." Labor held preliminary meetings on the budget over the weekend, but the party was set to convene later this week to formulate an official stance. Meanwhile, the Pensioners said it had waited long enough for the party office promised them and were ready to leave the coalition as well. "The Pensioners' Party cannot accept harming the old-age pension, which the Treasury intends to do," said Health Minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri. "It is unfortunate that after the public outcry over the last 24 hours against the cutbacks of the Finance Ministry, Hirchson has come up with a budget that will deal a serious blow to young and old. So I hope that the prime minister and finance minister will not concede on the best and most loyal coalition partner they have and will cancel these cruel decrees forever." He added that the party will convene on Thursday at its office in Tel Aviv to decide whether to break its strategic and parliamentary alliance with Kadima. Pensioners' faction chairman Moshe Sharoni said that the party's seven MKs are obligated to their constituency more than to the coalition, and since an agreement was signed on a joint faction with Kadima, Kadima had violated every clause of the agreement. He said the gravest infraction was not forming a pensioners' ministry. "We have displayed patience and been easygoing so far, but our patience has run out," he said. "We are ready to take any means necessary in order to guarantee that we receive what is coming to us." Hirchson said that he had no intention of raising taxes and noted that despite the war, NIS 2 billion would be added to social welfare budgets in 2007. "War is not an excuse to grant the state a blank check," he said at a press conference. "The rich did business abroad. I won't let Israel slip back into a recession. I won't let the economy spiral out of control and repeat mistakes of the past. I won't let the events of 2000 repeat; I won't let interest levels go up and I won't let inflation rise." Meanwhile, Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini responded Tuesday to Hirchson's budgetary decisions by announcing he would not hesitate to organize a general strike if the Finance Ministry didn't rescind its one-sided proposals. He claimed the ministry was behaving like a private business concerned only with its own interests, and not like an entity meant to serve the public.