Bleary-eyed Knesset Approves Budget with More Funds for Olim Than Defense

A half-empty plenum of bleary-eyed Knesset members voted Thursday afternoon to approve a $30.6 billion state budget, which, for the first time in Israel’s history, allocates more for immigration than defense spending.

The budget is for nine months only, covering April 1 through Dec. 31.

Many Knesset members went home to sleep after a late-night session Wednesday. Many of those who remained dozed through the droning recitation of clauses and sub-clauses and had to be nudged awake by colleagues when the time came to press the button to record their vote.

The 23-14 result was a less-than-impressive victory for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s government, because only 31 percent of the 120-member parliament bothered to register votes.

Military spending in the new budget accounts for $4.8 billion, compared with $5.5 billion to help settle Soviet immigrants this year, triple last year’s allocation for aliyah, Finance Ministry officials said.

But the lethargy was in response to a relatively minor item. It was an expression of shame with the manner in which a mini-crisis over the allocation of funds to the institutions of the various religious parties was resolved Wednesday.

A clear majority in both major parties and in the smaller secular factions would like to do away with the unseemly haggling and political blackmail that has long governed the process.

David Magen of Likud, the minister of economics and planning, went so far as to invite the opposition Labor Party to introduce a bill to dissolve the 12th Knesset and call for early elections. He said he would try to persuade Shamir to agree, “because I am sickened to my stomach at this recurrent phenomenon.”

EXTRA MONEY FOR THE NRP

The budget vote was held up Wednesday when two of the smaller coalition parties joined the opposition to rebel against the allocation of $41 million in state funds to the yeshivot and other religious institutions associated with the Orthodox Shas and Agudat Yisrael parties.

A motion was passed killing the allocations that the Knesset Finance Committee had approved only hours before.

Shamir was furious over the breach of coalition discipline. The dissenters were Tsomet, a two-seat faction headed by Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, and the National Religious Party, which, though Orthodox, thought the allocations were excessive and unfairly made.

Under the present system, each religious party, some little more than one-seat factions, is given state monies for religious institutions they are “close” to.

In the case of Agudat Yisrael, each of its five Knesset members has a favorite institution he “takes care of” during the annual handout.

NRP leaders Zevulun Hammer and Hanan Porat agreed with that approach Wednesday. But they changed their votes Thursday after their party was awarded an additional $3.2 million for its religious institutions.

The five-member NRP Knesset faction came under scathing criticism from the opposition for “selling out.”

Hammer and Porat insisted they still favor change. But as long as the present system prevails, they have to ensure their party is not discriminated against to the benefit of the other two more traditionalist Orthodox parties.

Eitan, however, stood fast on principle and defied Shamir to fire him from the government. He said he would not resign.

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