Knesset passes budget after marathon session

Kadima says package "ignores the citizen" and sailed through due to "vote-buying"; PMO: Increased funding for firefighters will come separately.

knesset plenum (photo credit: Channel 99)
knesset plenum
(photo credit: Channel 99)
The Knesset approved the 2011-2012 biennial budget and the Economic Arrangements Law Wednesday during a marathon voting session that lasted nearly 12 hours, gaining Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu two years of relative political quiet without having to turn to the Knesset for major funding allocations.
After the government worked into the night Tuesday to reconcile tensions with haredi parties Shas and UTJ, Kadima still managed to stoke the flames of controversy during a number of the Wednesday votes, including the vote on funding for Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services, which remained unchanged despite the Carmel fire.
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The budget sailed through its second and third readings in the Knesset, passing by a final vote of 63-33 with no abstentions.
The 2011 budget for government ministries will be approximately NIS 247 billion, and rise to NIS 259b. in 2012. Additional funds held by the government for special situations will inflate the 2011 budget to a total of almost NIS 367b. and NIS 385b. in the following year.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed the budget’s passage.
“This is a good and responsible budget – both economic and social – that will continue to lead Israel’s economy in the right direction,” he said.
As the voting began on the budget Wednesday morning, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told MKs that the budget was “good for Israel’s citizens.
“We are submitting a budget that is good for the state of Israel,” he continued. “It is a budget for growth, for education, for the periphery, for closing social gaps and helping the weak sectors of society, for integrating haredim and Arabs in the economy and the work force.”
The opposition, however, was less enthusiastic.
“The prime minister’s happiness that he passed the budget is a sort of happiness over survival,” complained opposition chairwoman Tzipi Livni.
“It seems to the prime minister that if he managed to buy votes, he can continue to sit in his chair and do nothing for the good of the citizen. This is a budget that sees the last politician who entered Netanyahu’s office, but those who didn’t make it into the office were the local government officials, the state attorneys and the firefighters,” she went on.
“This budget that ignores the citizen will increase social gaps, and its results will be those of a country that does not determine a correct order of priorities for the good of the citizen – results that will be seen in education, welfare and the status of the middleclass, which will collapse toward poverty,” she added.
“This was the most cynical budget ever to have been passed in the country’s history,” complained MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima).
“It has no funding to deal with emergency situations, neither for fire and rescue nor for earthquakes, there is no great revelation, but mostly a budget whose job is to maintain the government. The prime minister bought MKs, lobbied and enticed, all with the public’s funds.”
During voting on clauses of the Interior Ministry’s budget, Kadima slammed the government for leaving the sum dedicated to the fire and rescue services unchanged, despite revelations following the Carmel fire that the fire services were critically underfunded.
MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) accused Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who left the room shortly before the vote was held, of “running away,” and accused the government of being “a bunch of dishrags.”
“You bought off the voting today, you bought all of the kollel yeshivas in the country, and nothing was left for the firefighters,” Plesner yelled out on the plenum floor.
Kadima forced the vote on the fire services to be held as a roll-call vote, in which each MK was forced to verbally affirm his or her support of or opposition to the unimproved budget.
In a rare move in the midst of the voting, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement arguing that “claims of alleged neglect of the Fire and Rescue Services are baseless.”
“Within nine days, a budget of hundreds of millions of shekels will be brought to the government for a vote in order to reinforce and re-equip the fire services and to lease firefighting airplanes, as the prime minister promised,” the statement continued.
Earlier, Plesner unsuccessfully attempted to derail the voting on the budget by arguing that the government had made secret deals with Shas and opposition faction National Union to secure their support, in violation of a law requiring disclosure of such agreements.
Coalition Chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) denied any connection between the progovernment votes by National Union MKs Ya’acov Katz and Uri Ariel and the NIS 230 million allocated to hesder yeshivas two weeks ago.
He said that funding was in the budget every year, and that the timing of its allocation was a result of the Finance Committee’s refusal to allocate money to the defense budget until the matter of the hesder yeshivas was taken care of.
Katz also defended his vote in favor of the coalition during an interview with Israel Radio, in which he said that “this is a nationalist government even though it has sinned. We will never let a nationalist government fall. Even if Bibi wants it to fall, we won’t let it fall.”
Late Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, coalition officials worked to settle a conflict with haredi parties after Israel Beiteinu’s military conversion bill passed the Knesset House Committee despite their loud objections.
As a result of the talks, both haredi parties presented victories in ensuring loans for home-buyers.
The constantly rising prices of real estate in Israel are one of the issues that most concern the haredi community, whose large families have relatively low incomes.
On Tuesday night, Shas triumphantly announced that the Prime Minister’s Office told party chairman Yishai that the coalition would support a bill led by Shas MK Yitzhak Vaknin. Under Vaknin’s bill, the state would give monthly grants of NIS 800 or NIS 475 to people paying off mortgages in “national priority” areas.
The Shas announcement stressed that Vaknin’s bill, which also bears the names of 28 MKs from nearly all the coalition and opposition parties, is not sectorial and will serve all members of the public wishing to purchase a home.
On Wednesday, United Torah Judaism faction head Menahem Eliezer Moses said in a statement that Netanyahu had promised to promote the UTJ housing bill, which would insure a loan of up to NIS 1 million for those purchasing their first home anywhere in the country.
The bill will be combined with Vaknin’s, Moses’s statement added.