Budget Advances to Knesset, After Sectoral Interests Get Well-greased

Lawmakers close to the points of power, who can delay the budget bill and the accompanying Economic Arrangements Bill, got approval for some $79 million in funding.

Illustrative photo shows the Knesset Finance Committee earlier this year.
Olivier Fitoussi

The 2017-2018 state budget, which is expected to be approved by the Knesset on Wednesday, was passed by the Knesset Finance Committee on Tuesday night. The committee gave its stamp of approval only after eight coalition Knesset members received Finance Ministry approval for some 304 million shekels ($79 million) in funding for their sectoral interests.

This method of handing out funds harms the budget’s general, equitable and universal distribution.

For example, the Finance Ministry agreed during budget discussions last year to budget extra money for youth movements, in keeping with an agreement with opposition MKs Michal Biran and Zehava Galon. On Monday night, when Galon asked that the funding be continued for another two years, Finance Ministry budgets director Amir Levy stated that this had not been included in political agreements.

The only MKs who managed to pressure the Finance Ministry are those close to the points of power, who can delay the budget bill and the accompanying Economic Arrangements Bill. Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), for instance, managed to get the treasury to agree to 80 million in expenditures over the next two years. The budget can’t be passed without him, and he’s no rubber stamp. For example, Gafni objected to the plan to tax owners of three or more apartments, which pushed the Finance Ministry to capitulate to him. More than half to the money that Gafni obtained is for the sector he represents – the ultra-Orthodox.

Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) helped the treasury push the budget and the Economic Arrangements Bill through all the committees, and helped split budgetary items in partnership with the treasury. The Finance Ministry gave him 42 million shekels. Bitan, formerly deputy mayor of Rishon Letzion, pushed the treasury to approve several million shekels for local authorities, as well as 3 million shekels for Jewish cultural projects within the local authorities, and half a million shekels for local authorities in West Bank settlements.

MK Miki Zohar (Likud), coalition coordinator in the Knesset Finance Committee, received 40 million shekels. His projects include half a million shekels for the settlements unit in the Defense Ministry, 900,000 shekels for the National Emergency Authority, 3.5 million shekels for Jewish culture in the Education Ministry and 1.4 million shekels for development grants in the local authorities. Zohar worked with Bitan to pull together a coalition majority for the budget in the Knesset Finance Committee.

Knesset Committee chairman Yoav Kish (Likud) got the treasury to agree to 32.9 million shekels in demands, including a 9-million-shekel defense grant for local authorities in West Bank settlements, and 14.5 million shekels for the Negev and the Galilee, as well as 8 million shekels for Holocaust remembrance. Kish is able to block the Economic Arrangements Bill as well as individual budgetary items as chairman of the Knesset Committee.

Another Knesset member who received a significant sum for his interests is David Amsalem (Likud), head of the Interior and Environment Committee. He received 40 million in allotments. Half of that sum is to pay local authority representatives to attend meetings.

Knesset Finance Committee member Betzalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) demanded funding to protect Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, and at the last minute received an extra 50 million shekels via the Housing Ministry. Smotrich had been difficult during budget hearings and attempted to delay them.

Another Knesset Finance Committee member, Oren Hazan (Likud), had initially voted contrary to the coalition on Monday morning, before making demands of the Prime Minister’s Office and finance minister’s advisers in the afternoon. By the evening, he had received 10 million shekels budgeted for his interests. Another committee member, Nava Boker (Likud), also received 10 million shekels in budgetary allotments.

Thus, after all the most influential Knesset members had received their budgets, and the committee had been presented with a table of coalition budgetary allotments, it approved the two-year budget. The objections of opposition members were ignored. The coalition allotments have been made public since last year, after Yisrael Beiteinu members were suspected of misusing funds. The Finance Ministry and Justice Ministry argued that the coalition members’ sectoral demands were justified, in that they helped them meet their political agendas.

Labor, Welfare and Health Committee Chairman Eli Alalouf argued that the capitulation to the demands of Hazan, Boker and Smotrich was “political bribes.”

Hazan responded, “I received coalition funds because I realized that if I don’t use my power to bring social change, I’m not suited to be a Knesset member. I’m not earning political gain from this money, it’s being used for social endeavors.” The money is going to a children’s hospital, to shell-shocked soldiers and for Holocaust survivors’ dental care, he said.

Zohar responded, “There’s no political bribe here. That’s a populist statement. Knesset members are elected to advance agendas, and do so through committee meetings and the law I’m proud that I obtained this funding.”