No voice for the vulnerable at the cabinet table

Who speaks for the less fortunate during budget deliberations?

olmert cabinet 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert cabinet 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On recently unveiled a NIS 311.6b. draft budget - the largest in the nation's history. Earlier, cabinet members sparred over how the funds would be allocated. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi warned that the Defense Ministry was being short-changed with an allocation of about NIS 56b., complaining that the Treasury was refusing a request to increase the budget by NIS 5b. As the Post reported, the Finance Ministry plan expands the defense budget by NIS 1.6b., in addition to the NIS 2.5b. allocated for costs arising from the Second Lebanon War. This clash of wills over budget allocations is routine, though emotionally charged, with the chief of staff repeating his predecessors' warnings that the government alone will be responsible for the "consequences" if the defense budget is not enlarged. When the budget deliberations conclude - as they will - in a compromise, the question will be where the funding to bridge the gap will come from. Since the budget is capped at no more than 2 percent of last year's, a search will be conducted for possible budgetary cuts from other ministries. This is a critical moment, in which Israel is required to make a difficult choice - security vs. economy. Security vs. society. Security vs. education, or culture, or welfare. THIS DILEMMA has been with Israel for many years. What will Israel be willing to forgo in order to get - perhaps - more security? This is a harsh conundrum, which ultimately has bearing on each and every citizen. The Treasury has already hastened to offer unpalatable options. Benefits for immigrants and for immigrant scientists could be cut; the basket of medical services or various other social welfare programs could be cut. Whatever the outcome, it's clear that the government will not be able to provide the vulnerable populations with all they deserve, with what they require to improve their social standing. All this is happening, let me remind you, in the Israel of 2007, where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Recently there has been a great deal of publicity about Holocaust survivors who have been protesting over their monthly pensions, which the government proposed to raise by a paltry $20 as an answer to their economic distress. While the defense minister and chief of staff presented the lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War, there was no one around the cabinet table to present Israel's social needs - particularly after the Second Lebanon War. DURING THE last war, the home front had to face Katyushas in the north and Kassams in the south, and in many places could not stand the strain. Some citizens succeeded in evacuating themselves, while others were left to voice harsh protests and great frustrations. Keep in mind that a socially weak country is unable to face military threats and cannot muster the military prowess needed to confront its enemies. Social investments bear fruit only long after they are made, but they are the key to our society's resilience. The Second Lebanon War proved that the damage to the social sector had already been done, but we are refusing to learn the lessons and implement them. The cabinet is composed of diverse political and ideological views, but despite that it would seem that all its members share the belief that economic strength is the key to the country's success. This is true only in part. The government must understand that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link; or, in other words, the socially vulnerable determine the entire country's resilience. But these vulnerable people have no one to lobby on their behalf; they are unable to approach the decision-makers, and they have no voice at the cabinet table. As a result, they are pushed aside, or perhaps pushed down. Someone must speak for them - and not only during elections, which occur once every several years and are swiftly forgotten. They need to have their voice heard now, this moment, in the government's budget deliberations. The writer is senior vice president of and director-general of UJC Israel.