On Sunday, the cabinet is to discuss the revised 2002 budget. The ministers will hear learned explanations on the difficult economic situation we are in and at the end of the session, they will vote on a budget cut of NIS 6.15 billion.
The cabinet will approve the cut, while the "good guys" - Eli Yishai and the other Shas ministers - vote nay. They always have their cake and eat it too, both voting against cuts (in the full knowledge that there is a majority to override them) and keeping their seats in the cabinet. It's a kind of a special morality.
On Wednesday, the cabinet will have to contend with a more difficult debate. That's when the treasury details the specifics of the budget cut, and then those same ministers will vote nay and immediately leave the meeting to be interviewed on the radio, moaning about the wicked government which hurts the poor and telling the people of Israel how they put themselves in the line of fire to defend the downtrodden.
In such a populist atmosphere, it is possible that the list of proposed budget cuts will not remain entirely intact, so that it will be necessary to raise taxes. But this poses a problem for Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, who has repeatedly promised not to do precisely that. Furthermore, under the package deal being hammered out, national insurance and health insurance deductions are slated to be reduced for all those who earn less than the average wage in the economy. In lieu of this reduction, Shalom could hike other taxes, on interest-bearing saving accounts, for example.
The treasury has also discussed the possibility of eliminating the child allowance paid to families with only one child (a saving of NIS 2 billion) and to families with two children (a saving of another NIS 1 billion). That sounds tempting and easy to do, particularly since it appears the ultra-Orthodox are willing to agree to this. These are the lowest allowances paid (NIS 171 per child a month), while the ultra-Orthodox are much more interested in the allowances paid out when a family has five children who are "worth" (in terms of allowance), five times the allowance for one child.
If the secular sector agrees to this, they are incorrigible suckers. It would be preferable if instead, the opportunity was used to right the injustice so that the allowance would be equitably distributed, and every child - whether the first or the fifth - would be "worth" the same NIS 300 allowance a month.
After passing the hurdle of the cabinet, Shalom still has to pass the Knesset hurdle. There he doesn't actually have a coalition and every Knesset member is king. Every MK is running for the next Knesset from the moment he gets elected and therefore populism has a field day. Under the plan that Shalom is to present to the cabinet, all private laws are to be postponed, including the Negev Law. But in the meantime, private members' bills continue to stream through the Knesset at an astounding rate. Just this week, a bill initiated by David Levy to grant NIS 4 billion to Jordan Valley communities had its preliminary reading. Coalition whip Ze'ev Boim abstained. So did Ruby Rivlin and the bill passed.
Shalom doesn't even have a majority in the Knesset Finance Committee. Of the members of the committee, only two are from the Likud, both from the Netanyahu camp: Abraham Hirchson and Yisrael Katz, who aren't crazy about Shalom.
So we (and Shalom) face a long hard trail, full of threats and bogeymen. But one needn't get too excited, because we've already been there, done that.
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