MKs lash out during debate on national service cuts

Tamir threatens to sue Orlev for libel; Ayalon to ask PM to reverse cuts; Melchior: NIS 22m. needed to save program.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir challenged MK Zevulun Orlev (NU/NRP) on Wednesday to give up his immunity so she could sue him for libel, after he accused her of presenting false information at an urgent Education Committee meeting on the fate of the national service program. The Education Ministry decided to cut back on the national service budget in a series of other cuts earlier this year - a decision that has caused national-religious MKs in particular to foam at the mouth. The budget for most of the national service program runs out at the end of the month. Of the 3,160 girls in the program now, there would only be spots for 1,300 who deal with special education come September, Tamir told the committee. Fellow Labor MK Ami Ayalon, who is responsible for the national service program, said he was bringing the issue to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday in an attempt to reverse the ministry's decision. His aide told The Jerusalem Post after the meeting that while Ayalon did not have a specific alternate suggestion to save the program, he had arranged a meeting with the prime minister, finance minister and education minister to work on a solution. During the committee session, Tamir explained that, "our basic mission, which we are not meeting, is to provide full regular schooling to every child." We must take care of the children in the classrooms, she said. Tamir added that if the Treasury allowed the ministry to use its already earmarked surplus in a more flexible way, the entire program could be saved. However, Orlev accused Tamir of fabricating numbers regarding how much money had really been set aside for the education reform. "I have an official document that says that NIS 83 million was budgeted for reform in 2007 and NIS 210m. in 2008," Orlev said. Tamir, who had said earlier that NIS 1.5b. was earmarked for the reform, responded that he was mistaken. "Why don't you give up your immunity so that I can sue you for libel," Tamir lashed out. Orlev then accused Tamir of cutting programs based on political philosophy. "There is no uniform cutback. I welcome the budget for female soldiers who teach and [for] youth movements. What is this talk about earmarked surpluses? If it is earmarked for something else, then it can't be used for this," Orlev said, yelling, "You are employing a policy of Peace Now! Where is the Labor Party? They should impeach you immediately! [Former prime minister David] Ben-Gurion is turning in his grave! No other education minister has ever dared touch the national service, which is a national asset." MK Eli Gabai (NU/NRP) also attacked Tamir. "In two years, you cut the budget from NIS 60m. to NIS 40m. Is that a normal cutback? The earlier you leave your post, the less damage will be done to the education system," he declared. Tamir had admitted before that the budget consisted of only 38m. Committee head Michael Melchior (Labor) managed to quiet down the livid MKs to wrap up the discussion. "The NIS 38m. budget runs out in two weeks. We have money for 1,300 spots. We need just NIS 22m. to save the program. The committee demands that the government, the education minister, the finance minister [and] Ami Ayalon make up the deficit and return the budget to NIS 60m. We cannot damage the heart of the nation, which is national service," he said. After the meeting, Melchior suggested to the Post that the NIS 22m. could come from funds set aside to reach coalition agreements, among other possibilities. It's not so much money, he said, "and we must find it."