Opening round fired in battle over Economic Arrangements Bill

Multiparty Knesset forum declares war on Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On's bill to balance the national budget.

Bar-on fed up 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bar-on fed up 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A multiparty Knesset forum has declared war on Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On's bill to balance the national budget. The forum met for the first time on Tuesday to push for the cancellation of the bill and especially what they described as its "antisocial leaning." As the Knesset's summer session draws to a close, the fight over the annual Economic Arrangements Bill is shaping up to be one of the main battles when the Knesset reconvenes in October. In the past two weeks, MKs have reported that they have been leaked internal information from the Finance Ministry concerning some of the bill's clauses. Among the reports that caused angry outbursts was one revealed last week, when MKs Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) and Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) - who spearheaded the ongoing attempt to raise maternity leave to Western European standards - said they had seen a Treasury draft bill to balance the budget that included a reduction of paid maternity leave from 14 to 12 weeks. The two lawmakers said another clause in the bill sought to cancel National Insurance Institute maternity grants for all births beyond the first. The Finance Ministry dismissed the claims as rumors, but since then, similar "rumors" have spread about cuts in other social welfare-related fields. In addition, other unconfirmed rumors have pointed to an expansion of the pilot "Wisconsin" welfare-to-work program to more areas of the country and to a "privatization" of certain fields of study at universities, including accounting and law. The Knesset forum, which held its first meeting on Tuesday afternoon, includes 14 legislators representing both the coalition and the opposition. The forum is headed by Meretz MK Ran Cohen. Its other members are Labor MKs Orit Noked, Yacimovich and Colette Avital, Justice for the Elderly chairman Moshe Sharoni, Meretz chairman Haim Oron and his colleagues, MKs Zehava Gal-On and Avshalom Vilan, Hadash MKs Dov Henin, Muhammad Barakei and Hana Sweid, Kadima MK David Tal, Gil Pensioners Party MK Yitzhak Ziv and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni. The forum plans to act in two major fields. In the coming months, it will work to cancel Bar-On's 2009 Economic Arrangements Bill, which is currently being prepared in the Finance Ministry. Forum members accused the government of attempting to employ cosmetic "face-lifts" to change poverty data, including redefining the "poverty line" to make social-welfare programs seem less necessary. "Instead of fighting poverty, the government is fighting against poverty data like a person who breaks the mirror in order not to see his own ugliness," said forum spokeswoman Shlomit Maman. The second arena in which the forum plans to act is the legal one; it plans to battle the very concept of how the annual budget-balancing act is formulated. "This is a Knesset-bypass law," Dr. Shlomo Siberski of the Adva Institute said at Tuesday's meeting. "If the Knesset does not cancel it, it will cancel the Knesset." The meeting included a debate among forum members as to whether their initial goal should be canceling the entire bill, or whether they should simply work to soften the the current bill and reduce the anticipated damage to social funding. Cohen, at the end of the meeting, said the forum would work in the coming weeks to strengthen its partnership with other public groups that oppose the bill and continue its struggle both in the Knesset and in the public sphere.