Following two long days of intense negotiations between Finance Ministry officials and faction whips from Israel Beiteinu, Labor, Gil Pensioners and Shas, the Knesset Finance Committee passed the Economics Arrangements Bill and the 2008 state budget late Monday night with 11 committee members voting in favor and six opposed. The 2008 budget, at NIS 315.8 billion, is the largest in state history; its single biggest expenditure item is the defense budget, at NIS 51.5b. The Knesset plenum is slated to pass the Economics Arrangements Bill on Wednesday and the budget on Thursday, making it the first government in more than six years to approve a budget before January 1. "First of all, I want to thank the members of the committee for all of their patience over the two long days of negotiations," committee chairman Stas Meseznikov (Israel Beiteinu) said. "I am very happy that we have been successful in approving the Economics Arrangements Bill and the budget, and even more pleased about the cooperation demonstrated between the different coalition parties and the Finance Ministry. We were successful in reducing the number of clauses that would have hurt the weaker population, and this is one of the key parts of the budget." The three amendments that the parties succeeded in removing from the Economics Arrangements Bill were a National Insurance Institute tax on health insurance for housewives, a freeze in NII benefit allowances and a 4 percent cut in NII allowances. Additionally, the parties agreed to increase the Law for Encouragement of Capital Investments by NIS 150 million to NIS 300m. "This law is one of the most important tools that we have for strengthening the periphery of the country, in battling unemployment and in developing industry outside of the big cities," Meseznikov said. The coalition's support of the budget will cost more than NIS 1.3b. in payouts, as a result of which the Finance Ministry had to slash other government resources in the budget, according to the Finance Committee spokesman. The billions of shekels are being distributed across the coalition parties for their individual objectives: Shas will receive NIS 500m. for ultra-Orthodox institutions, while Israel Beiteinu has demanded NIS 200m. for hospitals in cities that have large immigrant populations, such as Tiberias, Nahariya, Safed and Ashkelon. Labor Party Secretary General Eitan Cabel led the four parties in negotiating the deal with the Finance Ministry.