By REBECCA ANNA STOIL
The controversial Drought Levy will be put on hold for the duration of the winter, the Knesset determined during a near-unanimous vote Monday afternoon. Less than a quarter of MKs were present during the vote, but it was more than enough to pass the second and third readings of a law that will freeze the levy until the end of the winter by a vote of 28-1.
The law, which was presented by Finance Committee Chairman MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) and co-sponsored by MKs Amnon Cohen (Shas) and Uri Maklev (UTJ), provides recourse to those who complained that the Drought Levy was applied too suddenly and too universally. Gafni said that despite the real need for better enforcement of water use, the law was as yet unnecessary. In light of the fact that water use had already been reduced, as well as the lower overall average water use in the winter, the levy should be suspended during the rainy winter months, he said.
Gafni emphasized that there was an important distinction that should be drawn between the levy and the overall increase in water prices that is expected to go into effect in the coming months. In freezing the levy, Gafni said, MKs were preventing a double burden of both the levy and the overall price hike - expected to be as high as 40% - from being placed on households.
The new law also includes a number of conditions also meant to ease the burden for key groups. The household water limit, below which the drought levy will not apply, will be raised from 12 to 16 cubic tons per month for families up to four members. People with 100% disability, children with disabilities and the elderly will also receive higher limits, and the period to report the number of people living in any given household will be extended until December.
The decision as to whether the levy will be reactivated during the summer months will depend as to the amount of rainfall that Israel receives this coming winter.
But Gafni announced in the Knesset plenum Monday that he will bring an additional bill that would allow the Knesset to further freeze the levy up for its preliminary reading in the near future. Gafni noted that the committee originally wanted to legislate the possibility of extending the freeze together with the freeze bill that was passed Monday, but the two were separated at the government's request.
Gafni's powerful committee is expected to reconvene in March - a month before the current freeze is expected to end - to assess Israel's water situation following the winter rains.
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