Edri: All cuts to olim benefits will be canceled

The Treasury's plan to drastically cut back on the budget for olim benefits is being steadily cut back itself, according to Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri. Edri said Thursday that the Finance Ministry's plan to transfer the Public Housing Division - which helps olim find housing upon arrival in the country - from his ministry to the Ministry of Housing had been canceled. The minister was speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv, surrounded in a crowded room by six MKs and over a dozen representatives of olim organizations. His announcement follows the cancellation last weekend of a proposed 20% cut to absorption stipends. However, the draft budget that will be presented to the government on Sunday still includes cuts to the KAMEA program for encouraging the aliya of scientists and the cancellation of NIS 3,000-5,000 grants to olim from impoverished countries for the purchase of basic appliances, such as refrigerators and ovens. "I believe all this will be resolved and all the MKs present will be able to vote for the [2008] budget since it will be clean of these cuts," Edri told the olim representatives and journalists. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Edri added, was taking personal interest in the issue, and had promised to return an answer regarding the remaining proposed cuts. The MKs present vowed to be part of the campaign to stop the cuts to absorption benefits. MK Michael Nudelman (Kadima) said he had spoken with Knesset Finance Committee Chairman MK Gilad Erdan (Likud) and the two agreed that the budget would not pass the committee if it contained the cuts to KAMEA. Other MKs, particularly Marina Solodkin (Kadima) and Yuli Edelstein (Likud), noted that the absorption budget was not meant only for new olim, but also to continue the absorption of old ones. "Absorption is a multi-generational process, and we have to invest in a deep process of absorbing the olim" who are already in Israel, Solodkin said. "You only hear about the absorption process when there's a street fight between youths from the Former Soviet Union," Edelstein added. "But when you look into it you find that they've been in Israel for over a decade." Edelstein said the government must understand that it was competing for olim with other countries. "We know how hard it is to bring olim from North America and France, and now [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has come out with an absorption package for Russian émigrés," he noted. For their part, the olim representatives noted repeatedly that the absorption budget was a "social budget," and that "money cut from absorption will end up being spent on prisons for the youths who don't adjust," as one representative put it. The KAMEA program, budgeted at some NIS 90 million, helps to integrate excelling scientists and academic researchers from abroad into Israeli academia. The proposed cut would stop adding scientists to the current list of 500 who are supported by the program, slowly shrinking and eventually cancelling the program as the currently supported academics retire. According to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the Finance Ministry is seeking to cut the KAMEA program because the government would increase the absorption package for scientists from abroad through the implementation of the Shochat Committee recommendations. In response, Finance Ministry officials told The Jerusalem Post that many of the budget cuts that the Immigrant Absorption Ministry alleges it has been fighting were either nonexistent or part of internal budgetary discussions that never made it into the budget itself. "Absolutely nothing was taken from the absorption basket," an official told the Post. In a statement, however, the Finance Ministry did confirm its intention to cancel the electrical appliance grants given to olim from poor countries and the KAMEA program because, it asserted among other reasons, they were no longer economically justified.