Knesset approves 2008 state budget in swift vote

Olmert announces NIS 50m for Sderot fortification, NIS 500m allocated for ultra-Orthodox institutions.

aflalo 88 (photo credit: )
aflalo 88
(photo credit: )
Knesset members called Thursday's vote on the 2008 budget one of the quietest in recent memory, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's 72-member coalition easily maintained its majority in the plenum. Following a day-long debate, the Knesset approved the budget late Thursday night in a vote of 64 in favor and 31 against. "The last time the Knesset passed a budget before the start of the new year was 1992," said Olmert after the vote. MKs were visibly exhausted by the marathon plenum sessions, which saw more than 30 hours of debate over the past week. Only a handful of coalition MKs voted against the budget, protesting a lack of funds for defense and social welfare. MKs Ephraim Sneh (Labor) and Isaac Ben-Israel (Kadima), who both serve on the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said they voted against the budget because millions of shekels were lacking in the field of defense. Sneh, who until recently served as deputy defense minister, said that the citizens of Israel were "not being protected as well as they should be" because funds were severely lacking for the Defense Ministry. Labor's Ophir Paz-Pines, Shelly Yacimovich and Amir Peretz, and Kadima's Marina Solodkin, voted against or abstained due to a perceived lack of funds for the weakest sectors of society. "Labor made some impressive achievements in the budget and forced the Finance Ministry to make some real changes," said Yacimovich. "There have been real compromises made but it is not enough." Although the passage was relatively easy, the coalition had been forced to make a number of last-minute budget deals, including payouts of NIS 1.85 billion to the Labor, Shas, Israel Beiteinu and Pensioners parties. Shas was allocated NIS 500 million for ultra-Orthodox institutions while Israel Beiteinu demanded NIS 200m. for hospitals in cities that have high immigrant populations such as Tiberias, Nahariya, Safed and Ashkelon. Labor Party secretary-general Eitan Cabel led the four parties in negotiating the agreement with the Finance Ministry. The three amendments that the parties succeeded in removing from the Economic Arrangements Bill were a National Insurance Institute tax on health insurance for housewives, a freeze in NII benefit allowances and a four percent cut to benefits. In addition, Olmert announced that the government would be spending NIS 50m. to fortify Sderot. Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On said that it might be necessary to introduce across-the-board cuts to government ministries in order to make up the difference in the budget. The Knesset passed the Economic Arrangements Bill, a bundle of laws that are passed alongside the budget each year, late Wednesday. Seventy-one MKs voted in favor of the bill while 36 voted against it.