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One of the disputes over the 2003 budget is about state spending on the settlers. The Labor Party says their funds should be cut, but the finance minister says the cuts already been made across the board affect everyone, including the settlers. Therefore, he says, Labor's demands are groundless, and there's no way the treasury can reverse the cutbacks in pensions, the damage done to single-parent families, and the reduced guaranteed income payments - because there's no money available.

However, at times of crisis, it's important to examine everything. So, is it right to give so much money to Sharon's "dear sons?" And aren't there any political-personal reasons for the huge budgets that do go to the settlers, considering the large proportion of settlers who are now members of the Likud central committee and voters in that party's coming primaries?

The truth is, it is very difficult to find out just how much money goes to the settlers. Nowhere in the budget is there a line that says "settlers," just like there's no such line that says "Be'er Sheva." The funding is distributed through the ministries, and a lot depends on the attitude of the individual minister. For example, National Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Levy heads the Tourism Ministry, and its director general is Aharon Domb, a long-time settlement movement leader.

They regard development of tourism to the territories as their highest priority - because it is so well known that tourists like traveling in armored buses. Or, for example, the "Rural Construction" project in the Housing Ministry, headed by Natan Sharansky. Out of NIS 290 million in that innocently named project, NIS 130 million is earmarked for construction in the territories.

The "Discount Operation" that Sharansky is organizing to increase the number of settlers in the territories is offering such generous grants and loans that it won't take more than NIS 10,000 to buy a cottage in the territories. Here's another example - the entire NIS 138 million in the Settlement Division budget in the Agriculture Ministry headed by Shalom Simhon (of Labor), is targeted for construction in the territories.

The Defense Ministry and not the Public Works Authority is financing the bypass roads, the Religious Affairs Ministry will spend NIS 50 million on synagogues and mikves in the territories, and the Education Ministry will give a 90 percent discount on tuition for nurseries (for children between the ages of 3 and 4), and free schooling for all children from the age of four and up in the settlements, as if they were all welfare cases.

The Interior Ministry, headed by Eli Yishai of Shas, also prefers the settlements to the development towns. A ministry report on its activities in 2001 shows that the budgets for regional and local authorities in the territories are much bigger in the territories than those received by development towns.

In first place is the Megillot Regional Authority, north of the Dead Sea, with NIS 14,410 budgeted for each person, followed by the Jordan Valley settlements with NIS 10,480 per capita. Then comes the Hebron Regional Authority, with NIS 8,610 per capita. In fourth place is the Ma'ale Ephraim Local Authority, with NIS 7,580 per capita. And who is at the bottom of the list? Beit She'an, with NIS 3,610 per capita, Ofakim with NIS 3,530, Sderot with NIS 3,250. Lod is down there with NIS 1,250, along with Taibe, at NIS 1,500, Ramle, with NIS 1,440, and Carmiel with NIS 1,190 per resident. Is there any clearer proof of the Sharon-Shalom government's cynical policies - more for the territories and less for the development towns.

Mussi Raz, MK tried to come up with an estimate this week of how much the settlers get from grants and benefits in the 2003 budget. The open figures he found in the budget reach NIS 1.9 billion, with billions more hidden in other line items. So, how can Sharon and Shalom claim there's nowhere to cut? There's plenty to cut. But to do so, the government has to reinstate Yitzhak Rabin's proper priorities of 1992 - less for the territories, more for the periphery.