Will Israel's new budget be effective or catastrophic? - opinion

Only time will tell whether Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's government's budget is good or not.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett, during voting on the state budget in the Knesset last week.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett, during voting on the state budget in the Knesset last week.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Soon after 3 a.m. on Friday, the Knesset finally approved the budgets for 2021 and 2022 and the accompanying Arrangements Law.

It is very rare that Knesset sittings spill over into Friday – the Muslim day of rest – and the Arab MKs protested, but the spillover lasted for only three hours, and the coalition could celebrate its achievement of securing its continued existence for the next 17 months, and can now start implementing its budget and accompanying reforms – for better or for worse.

The previous time that the Knesset approved a budget was on March 15, 2018. It was the last budget that a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu passed. The finance minister was Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), Avigdor Liberman was defense minister, and today’s President Isaac Herzog was leader of the opposition.

Why wasn’t a budget approved for over two-and-a-half years? Because from December 2018 to May 2020, Israel was governed by transition governments, and transition governments cannot submit budgets.

From May 2020 to December 2020, Israel was governed by a rotation government led by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, and because Netanyahu was believed to be planning to renege on the rotation agreement (which would have turned Gantz into the acting prime minister on November 17, 2021), and he failed to deny that he was planning such a move, Blue and White raised difficulties on the budget for 2021/22 being brought to the Knesset for approval.

Thus, until last Friday, Israel existed on “continuation budgets” (the last budget approved, divided into 12 for each month) plus “boxes” – which are financial allocations outside the approved budget, required for emergency situations, such as unexpected military operations and the corona pandemic, and are financed by increasing the national debt – without submitting new planned budgets, reflecting new priorities accompanied by required legislative reforms to implement them.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman at the cabinet meeting, November 7, 2021.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman at the cabinet meeting, November 7, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

AT LEAST technically, the new budgets for 2021/22 return financial conduct to normal, while the involvement of the Knesset in the budget’s oversight and approval brings back an important element to democratic conduct, which was missing in the last few years – at least technically.

In a democratic system the government cannot implement a state budget without the approval of the parliament.

The problem is that today, with the vast dimensions of state budgets and their complexity, parliaments do not really have the ability to thoroughly go over the budget programs brought to them by the government for their approval.

In all parliamentary democracies today, the government has various procedural tricks to ensure that the budgets they submit are approved in time, and that various means that the opposition has to prolong the budget debate – primarily filibusters – are limited as far as possible.

In Israel, where the political situation further increases the problem, Article 98 in the Knesset Rules of Procedure states: “In a debate on the State Budget Law, and in other exceptional cases, the House Committee is entitled to fix special debate procedures, including the fixing of a framework for the debate, and length of speeches.”

Of course, it is not the Knesset House Committee that initiates the procedures, but the coalition. The Knesset’s legal staff can advise and assist the coalition, but cannot refuse to comply with its requests, as long as they are based on the Rules of Procedure or a law.

On Thursday evening, after the budget for 2021 and the Economic Arrangements Law had already been approved, and the budget for 2022 was being voted on, one article in the budget law did not pass in the plenum, because MK Emilie Moatti (Labor) accidentally voted with the opposition.

The coalition decided to return the article immediately to the Finance and House committees for its renewed preparation for second and third readings – a process that was bound to take at least several hours. Several members of the opposition started to attack the legal advisers of the Finance Committee and House Committee for allegedly “collaborating” with the government in applying the provisions of Article 98 of the Rules of Procedure, which in this particular situation forced the MKs to remain in the Knesset until the small hours of Friday morning.

The complaints against the coalition about its use of Article 98 in this situation were partially justified, since what the coalition needed to prevent the government falling in the first stage was that the Budget Law for 2021 would be approved by November 14, while there was no urgency about the rest of the budget legislation being approved immediately. In fact, the government had until March 31, 2022, to pass the additional legislation.

In defense of the government, one can say that it had an interest to end the process of approving the budget as soon as possible, because the conduct of the Jewish members of the opposition was unbearable and, besides the usual legitimate filibuster tactics for wasting time, included vicious lies and libelous expressions against the government, its members and motivation in the course of their harangues.

For example, several Likud MKs repeated the argument that much of the budget allocations and reforms were designed to deliberately further weaken the weaker sections of the population, such as the congestion charge, which they argued was designed to prevent the population from the periphery from entering Tel Aviv; the taxation on disposable plates, cups and cutlery, which they argued was designed to harm the haredim, who have large families; and the taxation on beverages with high levels of sugar, which are usually much cheaper than dietary beverages. 

MK David Amsalem provided especially graphic descriptions of these baseless accusations. Not a single suggestion was made on better ways to deal with the unbearable congestion in Tel Aviv, the problem of mountains of plastic waste, or the problem of excessive sugar consumption.

Under these circumstances, the government had no interest in prolonging the circus, which contributed nothing to the fortitude of democracy.

Back in December 1995, less than two months after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, as the government, then headed by Shimon Peres, was busy getting the Knesset to approve the 1996 budget, the Knesset House Committee held a special meeting on the abuses of the legitimate opposition tactics for contending with the annual budget (the Likud was still in opposition, and Netanyahu was leader of the opposition).

An effort was made to reach some constructive solutions that would enable the government to pass the budget smoothly, while securing the right of the opposition to fight against it. Nothing effective was achieved then, and unfortunately it doesn’t look as if any change can be attained today, if anyone will try to repair the current perverted situation, which is much worse than it was in 1995. 

BUT ISRAEL now has a budget. Whether it is a good budget, with numerous reforms and means to deal with some of the country’s burning problems (including the gloomy state of the Arab sector), time will tell.

Some predict that it is a budget that can be compared with Netanyahu’s mythological budget for 2004, when he served as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government. Others claim that it is a catastrophic budget that will benefit only MK Mansour Abbas and Hamas.

This time next year, we shall be wiser.

The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, soon to be published in English by Routledge.