The Finance Ministry is refusing to fund a decision by the government taken nearly three months ago to bring as many as 9,000 Falashmura from Ethiopia to Israel. The ministry says the decision violates new rules that require each spending item in the budget to be matched by an identified revenue source.
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Known as the “numerator” in treasury circles, the new rule was approved by the Knesset as part of the Budget Arrangements Law on November 19, just four days after the cabinet voted in favor of a five-year plan to bring the Falashmura to Israel.
The numerator is designed to prevent the government from committing to major spending without specifying where the funds will come from, a practice that in the past has saddled the government with spending commitments every year even before treasury budget planners get to work on the next year’s budget.
The treasury estimates the cost of bringing 8,000 to 9,000 Falashmura – Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity under pressure – will run to about 2 billion shekels ($510 million) over five years.
But David Amsalem, the Likud lawmaker who has led the campaign to bring the Falashmura to Israel, estimates the cost won’t exceed 100 million shekels annually and may be even half that. Amsalem is due to call a special meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee, and demand the treasury explain itself.
“The government’s decision to being the Falashmura was taken before the numerator and so the Finance Ministry is obligated to enact it,” he said Sunday. “The Finance Ministry’s job is to find the money just like it found money for the separation barrier and wage agreements.”
He said lawmakers had the means to force the treasury’s hand: “I say this without any reservations: The Falashmura will be coming in the next few months to Israel, numerator or not.”
In response, the treasury said the government‘s decision on the Falashmura had been taken in principle only and that no funding for it had been approved at the time.
“Nor were the amounts for it taken into account when the budget was approved in the Knesset for 2015-16. Therefore, the money has to be found in the framework of priorities for 2017, or the government needs to decide on changing priorities for the 2016 budget,” a treasury spokesman said.
The numerator requirement has marked such a revolution in budget-making that in the two months since it went into effect, the government has sworn off its traditional practice of voting new spending on a regular basis. Just over two months into this year, only one decision that has fiscal implications was approved by the cabinet – to lower the price of water – and only after a source for covering the revenue shortfall was identified.
Over more than two decades, successive Israeli governments have made conflicting decisions regarding the Falashmura. While the government and Jewish Agency did not initially recognize the community’s right to come to Israel, years of pressure by community members in Israel and by rabbis and Jewish organizations in the United States caused officials to relent.
Since then, tens of thousands of Falashmura have been brought to Israel. Three months ago the government approved bringing to Israel the last 9,000 Falashmura who are waiting in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and the city of Gondar.
Amsalem asserted that the real reason for failing to fund the Falashmura’s immigration was racism. “They don’t want to bring black people to the country from a troubled place. They’ll have to take care of them, putting many in the care of welfare institutions,” he said. “The country loves to bring strong immigrants from the United States and France.”