Shas chairman Eli Yishai
Shas chairman Eli Yishai at a Knesset faction meeting, June 2010 Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised Shas that yeshiva students will continue to receive welfare payments even though the High Court of Justice recently ruled the payments illegal, sources in the party claimed yesterday.

According to senior Shas officials, Netanyahu promised to support an arrangement that would continue the NIS 120 million subsidies, apparently via a clause in the Economic Arrangements Bill that accompanies the budget. The Prime Minister's Office said he had "not made any commitments."

Netanyahu met with leaders of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party at his Knesset office this week ahead of a debate on the two-year budget. The Shas leaders raised various budgetary demands, first and foremost the reinstatement of guaranteed income payments to married yeshiva students.

These allowances have been paid to yeshiva students out of the state budget since 1982. But the High Court ruled that they would have to be omitted from the next budget.

The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman called the ruling a "declaration of war." But Shas, as usual, would rather fight the court in the political arena than in the press.

The court was ruling on a petition filed 10 years ago by Jenny Baruchi after the National Insurance Institute stopped her guaranteed income payments because she had started university studies. When she realized that married yeshiva students are entitled to these payments but university students are not, she asked the court to mandate them for university students, too. Instead, the court decided on June 14 to deny the assistance to both groups.

"There is no room to differentiate between yeshiva students and students who study at other institutions," declared Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, writing for a majority of the seven-justice panel, in her verdict.

The court said the payments should continue through the end of 2010, but could not appear in the budget for 2011. The lone dissenter was Justice Edmond Levy, who thought the petition should have been rejected.

Beinisch said the state is entitled to support certain population groups, but within limits. "Should the legislature decide to support yeshiva students, it must consider all of the existing legal arrangements, as well as the arguments in this verdict," she warned.

The verdict drew enraged reactions from most of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) public. Shas, however, published the following moderate response that day: "Shas chairman [and Interior] Minister Eli Yishai has instructed party whip Avraham Michaeli to prepare legislation that would ensure continued income support for married yeshiva students."

But it now appears there will not even be a need for legislation. The matter quickly arrived on Netanyahu's desk at this week's meeting, which the Haredi Internet site Lada'at hastened to publicize.

Shas sources told Haaretz that Netanyahu had promised to prevent cancelation of the funding. Yishai raised the problem and its ramifications at the meeting, they said, telling Netanyahu that this is the "weakest layer of Haredi society," encompassing entire families for whom the NIS 1,200 stipends constitute half their monthly income.

Shas members said that no solution was agreed on in the meeting, but it appears likely that a clause reinstating the payments will be added to the Economic Arrangements Bill. Netanyahu, they said, rejected legislation that would override the court ruling, but responded positively to another option that would uphold the principle laid down by the court: giving the payments to both yeshiva and university students.

One suggestion raised in the meeting was that while both types of student would be entitled to income support, the eligibility criteria would give an advantage to yeshiva students while still being technically egalitarian. For instance, the beneficiary would have to have at least three children and not own a car, and his or her spouse would have to be unemployable. This would render the number of eligible university students negligible.

The Prime Minster's Office said in response that "no commitment was given by the prime minister." Shas refused to comment for this report.