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Knesset Passes Budget Bill, Averting Government Collapse

The Knesset’s adoption late Thursday of a $50 billion state budget for the 1992 fiscal year ended a week of what veteran observers called unprecedented parliamentary pandemonium and haggling among the religious parties of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s coalition government.

The measure was adopted Thursday night by a comfortable margin of 60-53, with one abstention. It was two days late, according to Israeli law, which requires the state budget to be in place by midnight Dec. 31.

But its passage rescued Shamir’s contentious coalition of right-wing and religious parties, at least temporarily, from dissolution.

Had the bill failed, Shamir would have almost certainly handed his resignation to President Chaim Herzog and called for early elections.

As it turned out, he bought time in a very literal sense by promising hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds to subsidize the schools run by constituents of the religious parties.

The prime minister also pledged additional hundreds of millions of dollars for an accelerated settlement building and expansion program in the administered territories. This issue has already gotten Israel into trouble with Washington and could seriously jeopardize future U.S. aid for immigrant resettlement.

No sooner had the budget become law than the Knesset plunged into another divisive debate over an electoral reform measure that would provide for the popular election of the prime minister by separate ballot not linked to party lists.

CONTAINS 6.2 PERCENT DEFICIT

Under Shamir’s prodding, the huge Likud Central Committee voted almost unanimously last month to oppose the reform measure. The bill was thus doomed, according to political observers. But Laborites still hoped for a majority in favor.

That was far from certain as debate continued late into Thursday night. Uriel Lynn, the Likud chairman of the Knesset Law Committee, was expected to pull the measure off the floor and into committee limbo if it showed the slightest signs of advancing.

Lynn has the power under the rules, though the tactic is rarely used and has earned the opprobrium of legal academicians and jurists.

The entire opposition walked out of the chamber Thursday afternoon to protest what it charged was Likud filibustering to avoid a vote on electoral reform.

The result was that many clauses of the budget bill were passed with no opposition members present.

Apart from the unseemly bickering by the ultra-Orthodox parties over their access to the public purse, the budget measure was controversial on economic grounds.

It has a built-in deficit of 6.2 percent of the gross national product, which economists say borders on recklessness. The Treasury said that massive immigrant absorption costs necessitate this policy.

In their final deal, the three haredi or ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas, Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah — withdrew their demand for a $17 million reserve fund in the Prime Minister’s Office, to which they would have recourse should they feel the ministries and Education and Religious Affairs are short-changing their institutions.

Both ministries are controlled by the National Religious Party, which is Orthodox, too, but Zionist-affiliated and a rival for the allocation of state money.

The NRP had precipitated the crisis by refusing to support the budget unless “special funding” for the haredi parties was channeled through the appropriate ministries, instead of dispersed directly without accountability.

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