Olmert, Livni join forces against Labor, Mofaz in budget battle

bar-on 6.2 face 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bar-on 6.2 face 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After more than 12 hours of cabinet deliberations failed to break a deadlock on the 2009 budget late Sunday night, Defense Minister Ehud Barak's associates complained that the Finance Ministry has "handcuffed" Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and refused to allow him to make concessions to Labor that could have saved the NIS 319 billion 2009 state budget from a late-night quagmire. "We agree with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz that Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On is purposely trying to prevent his own budget from passing in order to help Livni," said one Labor official close to the party chairman. Mofaz has said that he believes the budget proposals of Bar-On, who has endorsed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the Kadima primary, are a ploy to bring him down. Mofaz was reportedly lobbying other Kadima ministers to join him in his opposition to the budget, support that he already received from Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim. Boim, needless to say, did not admit to a political motive behind his opposition, but rather said that he opposed the budget since it failed to provide for the poor who needed housing, particularly those in the country's periphery. With deliberations over the vote lasting well into the night, rumors began to fly of the budget losing ground within Kadima, with Tourism Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila and Immigrant Absorption Minister Eli Aflalo leaning toward opposing Bar-On's two proposals. At the same time, however, Olmert was reportedly holding closed-door meetings with the Pensioners Party's two cabinet ministers in the hopes of replacing some of his lost votes from within Kadima. The meetings with the Pensioners ministers came hours after Barak and Olmert held a téte-a-téte during the cabinet's dinner break, after which the Labor chief conveyed the results of the talk to his party's ministers before the cabinet reconvened at 10 p.m. According to people close to the talks, the negotiations were hopelessly stuck on the issue of the budget increase - whether it would stand at the 1.7% supported by Bar-On or would be increased in accordance with Labor's demands. After pre-meeting sniping between budget opposition and Bar-On loyalists, the verbal sparring began among the key players in the early afternoon, when Olmert blasted Barak and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) for their absence during the first hours of the marathon meeting. Barak and Yishai held a late-morning meeting with Histadrut Labor Federation chairman Ofer Eini and President of the Israel Manufacturers Association Shraga Brosh, who argued that the budget vote should be postponed until a new government was formed. "We're sitting here discussing the budget, with the major issue at hand being the defense budget. It's a shame the defense minister is not studying the budget thoroughly because he is absent most of the time," the prime minister said. Barak's associates returned fire, blasting Olmert and Bar-On. "Unlike the prime minister and finance minister, who are cutting the state budget unilaterally, the defense minister is consulting with important figures in the economy, including the Histadrut Labor Federation, employers and government ministers, regardless of their political party. Olmert and Bar-On should follow suit in order to reach a balanced, sensible budget," they said. Olmert said during the meeting that he would not let the budget become a political tool for partisan or personal matters, and despite the standstill in the budget negotiations, maintained that Barak had told him Labor was not threatening to vote against the budget. But early Sunday morning, prior to the cabinet meeting, Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel said his party could not vote for the budget in its current form, demanding that the Treasury propose a budget that maintains the correct balance between defense and social interests rather than cutting one at the expense of the other. And Labor's resident economics expert, Finance Committee Chairman MK Avishai Braverman, threatened hours before Olmert's comments that unless the Treasury agreed to add NIS 2 billion to the budget, Labor would vote against it. But opposition to the budget was far from the sole province of Labor and it was Mofaz and Boim's early opposition that tipped the balance on the 12-13 deadlock that prevailed throughout the day. The Kadima primary cast a giant shadow over the negotiations, with Mofaz, currently running second in the leadership race, maintaining his staunch opposition to Bar-On's plan. In the course of the day, Mofaz blasted current Kadima front-runner Livni for maintaining silence on the budget, which she has repeatedly stated that she supports for the sake of the nation's economy. "Anyone who argues that the approval of the budget must be delayed is not doing so for professional reasons, but rather political ones," complained Livni in a comment pointed at Mofaz. "I say to everyone - we all have a responsibility to the economy and the Kadima primary does not negate that responsibility. We must not allow an internal political issue to influence our votes here today and the stability of the economy." Mofaz's opponents - as well as Olmert associates - have suggested that Mofaz's desire to delay the vote on the budget is meant to stall the vote until after the September 17 primary. In that case, should Mofaz win the primary, he would be able to use budgetary concessions as a powerful tool to pull together a coalition and form the next government.