Olmert turns to UTJ for support

Following refusal of 3 Labor MKs to OK budget, PM steps up talks with UTJ.

yaacov litzman face 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yaacov litzman face 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Following the decision of three Labor MKs not to vote for the budget in its first reading on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stepped up coalition talks with United Torah Judaism. Olmert met with the party's representatives, shortly after the vote to try and bridge the differences still blocking a coalition agreement with the party. The meeting with MKs Ya'acov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, who as members of the opposition voted against the budget, didn't end with a result and Litzman afterwards told reporters that there is only a 50-50 chance of UTJ joining the coalition. For Litzman this will also have personal repercussions, since the Knesset Finance Committee that he chairs will begin discussing the budget on Tuesday. Litzman has already announced that if UTJ does not join the government by then, he will not pass the budget through the committee and most likely step down. The main sticking point is the UTJ demand that the government enlarge child benefits that were drastically cut during the former government. UTJ is not prepared to make do with the concessions already given to Shas that merely cancelled future cuts. The real deadline for negotiations is Sunday, since the two senior rabbis of UTJ, the Gerrer Rebbe Yaacov Alter and Rabbi Aryeh Leib Steinman, will be leaving on a 10-day fundraising tour of the United States and it's doubtful that an agreement will be authorized in their absence. Another result of the weakening of the coalition at such an early stage could be the strengthening of Shas, the only party whose members haven't yet made any problems for Olmert. Shas chairman Eli Yishai, who is Trade, Industry and Employment minister, said after the vote that "we're the only ones that Olmert can rely on. When we vote on an issue, we all vote together." Yishai hopes that as a result of his party's loyalty, the two Shas ministers-without-portfolio will be given wider responsibilities. The party's main priority is that Minister Meshulam Nahari will be appointed minister in the Education Ministry in charge of haredi schools. Despite this being the express wish of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, Labor which received the ministry, has opposed this. Following Labor Chairman Amir Peretz's inability to impose discipline on his party, Shas hopes it still has a chance.