Change to Housing Aid Rules May Ignite Coalition Crisis

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Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias' decision this week not to give employed people preference in buying affordable housing under a new government program could spark the next major political crisis.

The Trajtenberg Committee appointed in connection to the social protests of last summer recommended making employment a condition of eligibility for the program. Atias' decision violates a written agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu.

A spokesman for the prime minister said Netanyahu had not approved the plan.

Under the program, the government will give up some of its income from the sale of land for residential construction to bring down the purchase price for homebuyers who meet certain conditions.

The new criteria are to be submitted to the Israel Lands Administration next week for its approval. They make 80 percent of the score given to applicants a function of the longevity of their marriage. This criterion gives a decided advantage to members of the ultra-Orthodox community, who tend to marry young. Moreover, almost half the housing stock in the program will be reserved for families with three or more children.

Military service by either spouse will count for only 15 percent of the total score, with applicants in the army reserves receiving an additional 5 percent.

Yisrael Beiteinu is vehemently opposed to the new criteria, which party officials say contradicts an understanding signed by Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, according to which employed people would receive priority in the program.

This understanding specified that to be eligible, couple would have to prove that together they work the equivalent of 125 percent of one full-time position. Single applicants would have to hold down at least a 75-percent position, while single mothers with a child under two years old would have to provide proof of at least half-time work.

Political sources said the changes to the criteria could set off a coalition crisis.

A source in Yisrael Beiteinu said: "If the social protest changed something here, that change must be manifested in housing. In the final analysis, Atias' criteria do not benefit the middle class."

Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov sent a note to Netanyahu on behalf of his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, after Atias made his announcement: "We have no doubt that you, like us, are attentive to families who take part in the economic burden and the national effort. Therefore, you will not allow the erosion of the principle of giving priority in affordable housing to these groups."

Sources in Shas noted that the current criteria give preference to military veterans and said the party's cabinet ministers had not discussed with Netanyahu and Steinitz the issues that were the most important for their Yisrael Beiteinu colleagues.

Opposition leader and Kadima chairwoman MK Tzipi Livni told the Knesset on Wednesday that Atias' program was "a spit in the face of the social protest" and that the criteria contained "no good news for young couples who serve [in the army] and work. As usual they are paying the price of the Netanyahu government. The housing minister is once again relying on Netanyahu's weakness ..."

The Student Union of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said it would demonstrate outside Israel Lands Administration offices on Monday. "We intend to call on the finance minister to use his authority to prevent the ongoing discrimination against the working and contributing public and to eliminate Atias' criteria," Student Union chairman Itai Gotler said.

Social advocacy organizations said they would take the issue to the High Court of Justice. "Minister Atias insists on continuing to give out huge sums of money from the pocket of all of us to people who chose not to work," Jerusalem Councilwoman Merav Cohen, who represents a young people's group called Hitorerut B'Yerushalayim (Awakening In Jerusalem ), said.

Rabbi Uri Regev of Hiddush - Freedom of Religion for Israel, said: "The criteria the housing minister is trying to dictate to the Israel Lands Administration Council under his aegis show that he was and is first and foremost the minister of the yeshiva students, not the minister of housing of the State of Israel. It is to be hoped that the voice of reason and social justice will be heard above all, and that the council will reject the attempt to blur the distinction between those who need public help because they cannot work, and those who chose not to work but rather to live off the work of taxpayers and the public coffers."

Dr. Roby Nathanson of the Macro Center for Political Economics said the government's plan did not address the country's most serious housing problems because it did not provide a solution for the poorest people, who rent and cannot hope to own their own homes.

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