Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) said Wednesday that the addition of NIS 300 million to his ministry's budget "saved the education system from collapse." The Social Affairs Ministry also chalked up achievements that averted some of the expected deep cuts to its budget. "The ministry receive significant additional funding to strengthen disadvantaged sectors," Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor) said.

The Health Ministry saw gains of NIS 220 million to its budget, including allocations for infrastructural development to hospitals in outlying communities and for the rehabilitation of 1,200 people with mental illness within the community. The ministry must also to the across-the-board cuts, amounting to about 6 percent of its budget. But a senior ministry official said yesterday that these would all come from the ministry's purchasing and expenses budget, and would amount to approximately NIS 400 million. The ministry's agreement with the government includes the creation of a fifth health maintenance organization.

The Foreign Ministry received additional funding of NIS 160 million, minus about NIS 40 million for the blanket cut. Most of the increase will go to opening three new diplomatic missions. One is in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, a strategic location because of its proximity to Iran.

Speaking to the press in Tel Aviv shortly after the cabinet passed the budget, Sa'ar said the education reform would proceed, although in the coming school year it would be implemented in 250 schools instead of 680 as planned.

The Education Ministry received increases totaling NIS 850 million, not including an NIS 400 million one-time allocation for school renovations. However, after subtracting money the ministry owes, it ends up with an extra NIS 300 million. "A difficult and exhausting fight went on until the very last minute," Sa'ar said. About NIS 370 million was added for new programs to improve student achievements and teacher quality, as were NIS 40 million to retrain university graduates as teachers. A planned cut of NIS 45 million for school busing was averted. In addition, the ministry will receive NIS 400 million as part of the agreement over limiting the introduction of the planned reforms. Finally, university and college tuition fees will not be raised, except for cost-of-living increments.

Still, the blanket cut will reduce the ministry's budget by about NIS 165 million. In addition, the ministry is still responsible for contributing about NIS 180 million for the education reform for 2008, as well as NIS 110 million for costs to the education system deriving from natural increase.

Sa'ar said the last two items will be reopened for discussion before the next school year. The ministry will also have to absorb a cut from previous years of NIS 50 million, and another NIS 50 million to fund free education for hospitalized and other sick children and to pay for education in high-priority regions.

Sa'ar said his "red lines" were not breached: There was no dramatic cut in teaching hours, no mass dismissals or deep cuts to city education budgets.

Sa'ar acknowledged that the education reform instituted by his predecessor, Yuli Tamir, would be curtailed for the next two years, but said the government was still committed to it.

Teacher's Union head Yossi Wasserman said in response: "We will make every effort to ensure more rapid implementation of the reform in a large number of schools each year, beginning next school year. We will do so responsibly, together with the education and finance ministries, and not by striking."

'Gains for welfare policy'

Herzog fought hard to prevent a proposed NIS 2 billion cut to the budget of the Social Affairs Ministry, which would have curtailed aid to the mentally retarded, to new mothers, to widows, to children, the elderly, the unemployed and people with disabilities.

The ministry will receive an additional NIS 200 million, which will include funding for programs for children at risk, and for autistic, developmentally delayed and handicapped children.

Following these additions to its budget, the ministry accepted the NIS 2.5 million across-the-board cut it had to absorb.

National Insurance Institute director general Esther Dominicini said the results of the cabinet vote were "an achievement for the welfare policy."

Lieberman's conditions

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and his deputy, Dan Ayalon, also pushed hard over the past few days to prevent slashes to their ministry's funding. Lieberman conditioned his party's support for the budget on receiving additions of NIS 120 million. A good deal of the increment is to be devoted to the diplomatic and public relations fight against the Iranian threat. The additional funding will also allow the promotion of Israel's "brand name" begun by Lieberman's predecessor, MK Tzipi Livni (Kadima). Ayalon yesterday called the increase "a significant and unprecedented strengthening" of his ministry that would allow it to meets its challenges, particularly the Iranian threat.

Health

The Health Ministry said yesterday it had not been decided where to cut from its NIS 24 billion budget, and that cuts could be expected in public health funding, including school health care, in supervision and monitoring of medical services and in office administration.

The ministry's agreement also includes the transfer of responsibility for road accident victims to the HMOs, expanding nurses' authorities to prescribing drugs and hiring officials to reduce the time needed to approve new drugs.

NIS 14 million will be added to HMO funding to treat autistic children. The number of medical students will also be increased from the coming academic year, and NIS 25 million will be allocated to maintaining and increasing nursing staff. Funding will also be increased for the purchase of vaccinations.

Deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) yesterday called the additions to his ministry's budget "impressive." He noted that payments for services at well-baby clinics had not been approved and told Haaretz that other issues were still under discussion and it was "too soon to celebrate" because significant funding had still not been added to public health services.