Ministries claim victory in averting cuts to weak, needy

Even as the Finance Ministry announced it was slashing 6.5 percent from each government ministry as part of the 2009 national budget, ministers responsible for the some of the weakest segments of the population - from the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry - claimed victory Wednesday, highlighting additions to their annual budgets and the expansion of certain welfare programs. "I am delighted to announce that all budget cuts slated for new immigrants and for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry have been averted," Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver said in a statement Wednesday. "The treasury has agreed to remove all planned cuts from the budget and we have managed to avoid any damage to new immigrants and their absorption process." A spokesman for the ministry said that NIS 200 million had been added to its base budget and explained that the 6.5% cut would most likely come from the ministry's flexible budget for specific programs. Among the victories claimed by the ministry, which is responsible for the absorption process of all new immigrants into the country and for assisting returning Israelis, is the cancelation of cuts to the basket of immigrant benefits, protecting rental subsidies for new olim and continuing the implementation of a five-year all-encompassing plan to aid the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants, who are among the country's most impoverished citizens. The plan, which was originally meant to have a separate budget, will draw funds from each of the five ministries - health, education, welfare and social services, construction and housing and labor, trade and industry - and continue to be under the auspices of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. At the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, the response was similar, with its spokeswoman citing a NIS 200 million increase of its budget for programs dealing with children and youth at risk, the disabled and a special plan to help those struggling through the recession among others. She explained that the 6.5% cut proposed by the treasury was only NIS 2.5 million, and not significant compared to the increase. "It's much too early to start celebrating," commented Ran Melamed, deputy director of social empowerment organization Yedid. "There is no doubt that the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services has managed to reduce some of the proposed cuts to social welfare but if the plan to tax fruits and vegetables is approved that will have a very adverse affect on the country's poor." Avi Masfin, spokesman for the non-profit Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), which has been lobbying policymakers for the past two years to adopt the five-year plan for Ethiopian immigrants, said he was happy the new Immigrant Absorption Minister had taken the fight against cutbacks to the immigrant sector seriously. "We especially commend her for her commitment to the five-year plan for Ethiopian absorption," said Masfin. "However, until we see the plan put into practice we will not be able to say that it has really succeeded." "Our faith in the Finance Ministry is at an all time low and we still have no choice but to continue in our battle to get this program off the ground," he added.