UTJ Walks Out on Lapid Speech

YERUSHALAYIM -

United Torah Judaism party members walked out on Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s speech during a long and acrimonious Knesset session Monday night over the new austerity budget that singles out the chareidi public for especially harsh cutbacks.

The debate, which lasted until the early morning hours, concluded with a 58 to 44 vote to send the budgetary proposals on to the Finance committee, where it is expected to undergo extensive revision before the plenum votes on it.

The 17-month 2013-14 budget would, in its present form, create hardship for the middle and poorer classes with reduced child allotments and an increased income tax in each earnings bracket by 1.5 percentage points. Value added tax (VAT) already rose to 18 percent from 17 percent this month. The average Israeli could lose an estimated $2,000 a year through higher taxes and cuts to the child allowance.

“The budget will pass as is today but we will change things in the Finance committee,” said Gila Gamliel (Likud), who sits on the committee. “I told the Finance minister that it will not pass [the committee] and we won’t allow the budget to hurt the middle class and young couples.”

But hardest hit by far would be the chareidim.

Former Deputy Finance Minister Yitzchak Cohen (Shas) used his turn at the podium to warn that the budget will be taken apart “brick by brick,” and that it would never pass in the Knesset.

“These decrees against the chareidi public came after the Finance Minister gave orders to search for every possible means to strike at chareidim. It is not moral, it is not [good] economics, it is not legal, and it will not withstand a High Court review,” he said.

In its current form, the budget makes drastic reductions in child allotments, tax exemptions for housewives, higher taxes on housing renovations and earnings tests for various government benefits, also aimed at excluding avreichim.

Torah institutions are a special target. Chareidi schools that do not comply with the secular core curriculum mandated by the Education Ministry will face a total loss of state funding. Yeshivos are threatened with a funding cut off for thousands of foreign students. Government support for kollelim will drop from about one billion shekels last year to 640 million in 2013, and 420 million in 2014.

UTJ’s Uri Maklev said that Lapid is using the chareidi public as “a human shield” to deflect criticism of his austerity measures for the rest of the population. He added that the budget all but ignores the wealthy and powerful and concentrates on making life harder for the poor and vulnerable in Israeli society.

Maklev also pointed out the illogicality and counter-productiveness of some of the budget proposals, citing the elimination of funding for foreign yeshivah students whose families bring valuable tourist dollars into the country.

A UTJ spokesman explained that the walkout on Lapid was consistent with the party’s recent decision to avoid engaging in vituperative exchanges with him, which only serves his political ends.

It was noted that most Likud members, some of whom have spoken out against the budget, were also absent from the plenum during Lapid’s remarks.

Meanwhile, anger at Lapid took an ugly turn as an image of him dressed as Hitler was posted online.

Shas MK Eli Yishai said the picture was “horrifying” and that “political discourse must be kept within accepted rules of conduct.”

Yad Vashem condemned it as “a manipulation which harms the Holocaust’s memory. Even in public discourse we must have limits. Comparing Israel’s Finance minister to the biggest enemy the Jewish People has ever known crosses a red line and hurts the Israeli public,” the organization’s spokesperson said in a statement released on Tuesday.