Israeli Budget Narrowly Passes in Face of Right-wing Objections

Right-wing politicians, dissatisfied with funds for new settlements, almost killed Israel’s controversial state budget bill, which passed its first reading in the Knesset on Wednesday by just one vote.

The 48-47 tally in favor of the measure drew a sigh of relief from coalition floor managers, who were prepared to withdraw the measure at the last minute for fear of defeat.

That would have been tantamount to a no-confidence vote and could have forced Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s government to resign.

Laborites were furious with one party member, Histadrut Secretary-General Yisrael Kessar, who might have turned the tide. He absented himself from the chamber and could not be located for the vote.

The budget bill came to the Knesset plenum two months late because of the time taken to resolve a bitter dispute among Likud’s religious coalition partners.

The Zionist-affiliated National Religious Party refused to support the bill unless “special funding” for the schools of the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, bloc were eliminated. The three haredi parties, in turn, warned they would defect if the funding were removed.

Tense negotiations, in which Shamir and Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda’i personally took part, produced an agreement this week.

The NRP, supported by a substantial number of Likud and opposition Knesset members, opposed special treatment of the ultra-Orthodox schools, which receive state monies but are not required to meet official criteria in terms of syllabus, facilities and management.

According to the agreement, future allocations must be approved on the basis of national standards guaranteeing equality for all pupils in the religious and secular school systems.

The funds will be funneled through government departments and, like all other disbursements by the state, under the supervision of the state comptroller.

The Knesset Finance Committee will now process the reform bill, but it is not expected to be ready for a final vote by Jan. 1.

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