Knesset Again Halts Budget Talks Due to Coalition Dispute

Yesh Atid, led by Finance chief Lapid, is at odds with Likud and Yisrael Beitenu.

Ofer Vaknin

The Knesset halted discussions over the state budget yesterday amid tension between Yesh Atid and the other coalition parties.

The dispute centers on Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s flagship proposal for to exempt some first-time home buyers from value-added tax, coupled with pressure from politicians and interest groups against reforms to the Economic Arrangement Bill.

As of last night, no progress had been made on the matter. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be forced to intervene.

The budget bill, and the accompanying Economic Arrangements Bill, ran into a deadlock in the Knesset House Committee amid a conflict between Lapid on one side and coalition head Ze’ev Elkin and committee Chairman Yariv Levin, both of Likud, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu) on the other.

The conflict between Likud and Lapid’s party Yesh Atid over the Economic Arrangements Bill had led to a breakdown in budget talks Monday night as well.

The Economic Arrangements Bill, which generally is passed together with the budget, is often used as a catch-all collection of various reforms and initiatives.

Likud and Yisrael Beitenu want several major reforms currently being included in this bill to be spun off as separate legislation. These reforms include making the Jewish National Fund more transparent and diverting some 1 billion shekels ($260 million) from its budget to national uses; privatizing government companies; and reducing the public-sector workforce.

Lapid wants to keep these initiatives as part of the Economic Arrangements Bill.

Additional conflicts focus on health-system reforms, including taxing medical tourism and limiting the operations of private hospitals. Likud representatives want discussions of these matters transferred to the Knesset labor and welfare committees, led by Likud MK Haim Katz. Lapid objects, fearing that this would stonewall these initiatives.

Meanwhile, political activists, mayors and lobbyists are also campaigning against these various reforms. Parties with representatives in the JNF and various national institutions are trying to preserve the status quo.

Gender equality lags

Meanwhile, the budget bill reveals that gender equality among the top ranks of government companies took a hit last year.

Some 38% of board members at government companies were women last year, versus 48% in 2013, according to the budget draft documentation.

The Government Companies Authority is responsible for appointing board members of government companies.

The year 2011 was a particularly good one for women at government companies - some 65% of board members were women.

The budget draft also indicates gender inequality at the Tax Authority. Women account for only 14% of top managers, 29% of managers overall and 49% of all staff there.

The police force is also comprised overwhelmingly of men.

Women account for 71% of all health-care workers at public-health facilities, including hospitals, Health Ministry offices and well-baby clinics. But women employees earn less than their male counterparts – womens’ salaries account for only 62.7% of all health-system-salary expenses.

Disparities also exist within the education system. The higher the ranking, the lower the representation of women: Women account for 99.3% of all municipal day-care workers but are a minority among senior lecturers at universities. Women account for only 35% of senior lecturers and 15% of professors.

School-based inequality

The budget draft also exposes inequality within the school system. Jewish middle-schoolers receive national funding for on average 12% more instruction hours than their Arab counterparts, according to Education Ministry budget figures.

According to the ministry’s budget book, Jewish students receive national funding for 1.81 weekly instruction hours, versus 1.61 hours for Arab students.

The gap has been shrinking over the past few years. In 2009, Arab students trailed their Jewish counterparts by 21%.

These statistics do not include national-religious Jewish schools or ultra-Orthodox schools.

Arab high-schoolers receive national funding for 1.95 instruction hours a week, while Jewish high-schoolers receive funding for 2.04 instructional hours a week in the 2014 budget. This is a gap of 5.6%, versus 6% in 2009.

National education budgets are least discriminatory when it comes to primary schools. Jewish elementary-schoolers receive national funding for 1.69 instruction hours a week, versus 1.64 for Arab children, a gap of 3%. But the Education Ministry is supposed to give extra funding for schools in poorer areas, which includes many Arab towns, so this gap shouldn’t exist at all.