Social welfare groups castigate 2007 state budget

Knesset passes NIS 295.4 billion budget; abstaining MKs say they did so due to lack of social funding.

hirchson budget 298 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
hirchson budget 298 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Despite the prime minister's assertion that the Knesset has passed the most "socially conscious" state budget in recent years, nonprofit organizations said Thursday that social needs continued to be underfunded. The Knesset approved the NIS 295.4 billion 2007 state budget early Thursday morning, by a 63-31 vote, with six abstentions. All the lawmakers who abstained - United Torah Judaism MKs Ya'acov Litzman, Meir Porush and Shmuel Halpert; and coalition MKs Shelly Yachimovich (Labor), Marina Solodkin (Kadima) and Yitzhak Galanti (Gil Pensioners Party) - said they did so due to a lack of social funding. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the funding had been increased from the levels of the last two years, but advocacy groups active in researching and working with society's weakest communities responded that the increase was insufficient and that the funding was still less than it was five years ago. Annual social spending for 2006 and 2007 has risen by NIS 4b. compared to 2005, said Prof. Yaakov Kop, director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, a social policy research institute in Jerusalem. The center conducted a survey immediately following this past summer's war that found 88 percent of the public believed the social welfare budget needed to be expanded and 76% said they opposed cutting social benefits to expand the defense budget. "The problem with the social budget only appears when comparing it to the budget from 2001," said Kop. The 2006 and 2007 budgets included NIS 102b. of social spending, the 2005 - NIS 98b., and 2001 - NIS 110b., he said. Taub blamed the government's lack of emphasis on social issues mainly on the second Lebanon war, saying that because of last summer's events, "We will never know how serious were Ehud Olmert's promises during his election campaign in March." As for Labor's failure to push harder for social spending, Taub said the balance of power in the government changed the day MK Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu party joined the coalition. "If the budget vote had taken place two days before Lieberman joined the coalition, I doubt Labor would have let this budget pass," said Taub. Off the record, many Labor MKs agreed, but only Yachimovich abstained during the budget vote. "The 2007 budget is completely a [Likud chairman Binyamin] Netanyahu budget," said Yachimovich. "It has intensive privatization of social services, which a social democrat party must not accept." Meretz MKs congratulated Yachimovich for vote, and blasted Labor for abandoning the socioeconomic agenda it campaigned on in the last election. "The increase in social spending is a joke, and not a very good one," said one Meretz MK. "All of the coalition parties are more concerned with keeping themselves in power than on the good of the country." With the budget passed, many social activists are predicting a grim future for the weakest members of society. "It does not look good for Israel on a social level," said Shlomo Svirsky, academic director at the Adva Center for Information on Equality and Social Justice in Israel. "There was an option for the government to stop the tax cuts," he said. "Instead they chose to favor people with higher incomes at the expense of those with lower incomes. This has been the trend since 2001." Svirsky said the government had failed to invest in future generations or to address the growing gap between rich and poor. Eran Weintraub, chairman of humanitarian aid organization Latet, said the government needed to do more to reduce the gaps between rich and poor in all areas, including income, education and health. He said the government bore ultimate responsibility for tackling the country's growing poverty rate. According to the National Insurance Institute's annual poverty report published in August, 1.6 million people live below the poverty line. Weintraub said that Latet, along with 93 other NGOs, sent a petition to Olmert on Monday demanding that the government "take responsibility for its needy citizens." "We are not willing to do it all alone," said Weintraub, adding, "These voluntary organizations will collapse without help, and then there will be a huge catastrophe in Israel." Weintraub reiterated Latet's position that the government could, even within expanding the social welfare budget, set up a national body responsible for the battle against poverty. "We have no choice but to wage war on poverty. It represents the same level of danger as Hizbullah on our northern border," he said.