Finance Minister Faces Fight over Proposed Austerity Plan

Abolishing religious councils and halting funding for yeshiva students under the age of 18.

These are among Israel Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman’s proposals to cut $214 million from the country’s religious budget — and the proposals are making Israel’s religious parties bristle.

Ne’eman’s plan, which would cut the religion ministry’s budget by more than half, calls for the ministry to shoulder nearly one-third of his total proposed budget cuts.

Talks that Ne’eman held this week with ministry officials to discuss the proposal broke down into angry exchanges.

Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Yigal Bibi, of the National Religious Party, said that if Ne’eman’s proposals were adopted, “We might as well go ahead and dismantle the Religious Affairs Ministry.”

Ne’eman held meetings with several ministers this week to discuss the cuts prior to a scheduled Cabinet meeting next week that will take up the 1998 budget.

Although the Cabinet recently approved Ne’eman’s belt-tightening measures, it appears that few ministers are willing to see the cuts come from their own portfolios.

The health and education ministers have announced that they will not stand for substantial cuts from their respective budgets.

Ne’eman met Wednesday with Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai to discuss the defense budget, but the two were unable to agree on how much to cut.

The Israeli Cabinet last month approved a 1998 budget of some $46 billion that includes more than $650 million in spending cuts.

The treasury had argued that the cuts were necessary for the government to meet a deficit target rate of 2.4 percent of the gross domestic product.

Finance Ministry officials previously announced that lower than expected tax revenues had forced the government to look for other ways to meet the deficit target rate.

The halting of funds to yeshiva students under the age of 18 — who, Ne’eman argued, already receive financial support from the Education Ministry — is estimated to save about $100 million.

The responsibilities for the religious councils — which have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for all Jews living in Israel — and would be transferred to local municipal councils.

This move, he said, would save about $71 million.

Referring to the fact that Ne’eman is religiously observant, the NRP’s Bibi said, “I don’t know what’s happened to him. I simply cannot explain it. It is too bad that a religious minister would cause the desecration of God’s name.”

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