Knesset Begins Marathon Budget Debate

YERUSHALAYIM -
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with senior ministers enjoying the parliamentary combat during the first session on the state budget for 2015-2016, Wednesday. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with senior ministers enjoying the parliamentary combat during the first session on the state budget for 2015-2016, Wednesday. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset Finance Committee chairman MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni (UTJ) speaks in the Knesset plenum during the opening session on the state budget for 2015-2016, Wednesday.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset Finance Committee chairman MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni (UTJ) speaks in the Knesset plenum during the opening session on the state budget for 2015-2016, Wednesday. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset commenced on Wednesday afternoon what all expect to be a protracted struggle over the state budget for 2016-17.

MKs from Zionist Camp, Meretz and United Arab List have worked up a list of no fewer than 32,000 objections, which they plan to present during the debate before final voting. As such, there were predictions that Wednesday’s session would run through the night and the battle could take as long as two weeks.

The coalition has been trying to limit the number of objections the opposition can present, and has appealed to the Knesset Control Committee for assistance.

Among the coalition’s proposals: rolling up nearly all the objections into just a few “packages” on specific topics — for example, putting all the objections to amount of outlay on projects into a single objection.

But the opposition is not amenable. “This is just another example of Prime Minister Netanyahu trying to steamroll over democracy, and denying us our fair say,” an opposition source told Israel Radio. “We have a right to be heard, and we intend to make our objections.”

Knesset Finance Committee chairman MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni (UTJ), who has been working with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon in drawing up the budget, brushed aside the allegation:

“We are doing good things for the nation, but it is still not enough,” he said. “The budget isn’t perfect, but I have been through 26 budgets and for the first time, everything is transparent and on the table.”

Coalition sources sharply criticized the opposition for their delaying tactics, which they said was aimed at wearing down coalition MKs.

“Maybe they think someone will get sick or have a family emergency that will require them to leave the Knesset, and then they will call for an immediate vote,” a coalition source said.

“Since we have only 61 votes, they think they have a chance of toppling the government and calling new elections. But we have a message for Yitzchak Herzog, the opposition leader — we have the votes to pass the budget, and it will pass, regardless of his shenanigans.”

In his introduction of the budget, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon highlighted certain achievements, including raising pay for IDF soldiers in mandatory service, unemployment benefits for the self-employed, banking reforms, increased funding for public housing, education welfare and higher child allowances.

“Where I grew up, children were considered a blessing, but in the opposition, they think children are a burden,” he said, to shouts from opposition MKs, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Herzog, gesturing to the mostly-empty coalition seats during his speech, said, “You may not listen to me, but you are not listening to the citizens of Israel, either.”

“I know the prime minister doesn’t care that we cannot live here with the rising cost of living and there is no solution to the housing crisis, but does it not interest the ministers, either? How can you send young people to war when you don’t care about their future?” he asked.

Regardless of the opposition-made obstacles the coalition will have to overcome, at least it will have the Ministry of Defense in line. Kahlon and Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon signed a memorandum of understanding on the defense budget for 2015-2020 on Wednesday that proclaimed a new era of “budget certainty” for the military.

In return for an end to the perennial squabbles with Finance over defense allocations, Defense agreed to a series of structural reforms aimed at “diverting budget resources in the defense budget in the short and long term,” including a change in the permanent army model that will “significantly reduce the retirement quotas, spending on wages, and retirement payments, while establishing a control mechanism for these expenses.”

The document also said that jobs “not part of the IDF’s core business” will become civilian, the recommendations of the Goren Committee on the rehabilitation budget will be implemented, compulsory IDF service will be shortened from 36 to 30 months, living allowances for soldiers doing compulsory service will be increased, and the R&D budget will be increased and determined.

Kahlon said, “In recent years, as a civilian, an MK and a minister, I have found the mutual recriminations between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Defense very disturbing. Since I took up my position, I have met the Minister of Defense, and told him, ‘What has been going on here is a war, not a dispute.’”

It’s not peace in the Middle East, but at least it’s peace between the two ministries.