Analysis

Disability Benefits in Israel Fall Victim to Politics

What was supposed to be a done deal is being sent back for another committee to examine, so that the prime minister can take credit for raising allowances

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting on February 1, 2016.
Amit Shaabi

The sight of protesters in wheelchairs at the entrance to Jerusalem last Monday might have come as a surprise to many observers of the Israeli political scene.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon proposed a month ago raising allowances for people with disabilities by more than 70%, to 4,000 shekels ($1,110) a month, in stages over the next five years. Additional proposed legislation linking these allowances to the minimum wage would have boosted the sum to at least 5,000 shekels.

All the proposals were politically popular, and Kahlon’s plan had the imprimatur of a government committee headed by former Finance Ministry Accountant General Yaron Zelekha had examined all the ramifications, including the fiscal impact. It was a done deal, everyone said.

It turns out, they spoke too soon, and the protestors were right to be shouting in the streets.

As universally welcomed as they may be — and indeed may be because of that – disability benefits have become hostages in the political war between Kahlon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, amid expectations that early elections are on the horizon.

Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, April 19, 2017.
Ofer Vaknin

Two days after the Jerusalem demonstrations, the pair met with Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz, coalition chairman David Biton and top treasury officials to appoint a new government committee to examine the issue of disability allowances. Avi Simhon, the head of the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office, will chair it.

On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation formally postponed taking any action on the proposals for three weeks, until the Simhon committee has completed its work.

The panel will examine everything related to raising and linking disability benefits, including funding. It will meet with officials from the Finance Ministry’s budget division, the Social Affairs Ministry and the National Insurance Institute.

Of course, the Simhon panel could save a lot of time simply by reading the report of the Zelekha committee, whose members spoke with the same officials and considered the same factors. But because the new committee will be under the aegis of the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu will be able to take the credit.

It all seems to be part of a deal between Netanyahu and Kahlon, dividing credit for popular achievements.

A month ago, Kahlon stole the credit for the disability allowances when news of the Zelekha plan was leaked to the media just before Netanyahu was due to meet disability-rights leaders for a photo op.

But, in the end Kahlon was willing to give the credit back to Netanyahu. In exchange, the finance minister got Likud support for a program much dearer to his heart: The Family Net program of tax cuts and other benefits for young working families. The main feature of the plan (see story on this page) was approved by the Knesset last week, just after the panel of handicapped allowances was formed.

Kahlon also got concessions on the public broadcasting corporation –another point of contention between him and the prime minister — as well.

From Kahlon’s point of view, the deal gives him points with his core constituency of Israel’s middle class and leave the votes of lower-income groups that benefit more from handicapped allowances to the prime minister. Netanyahu will get his disability benefit increase when enough time has passed for it to be disassociated with the finance minister and reassociated with him.

Last week, Netanyahu told a caucus of Likud legislators that “whatever [legislation] hasn’t been taken care of in the summer by the Knesset will be done in the winter.” But in the Knesset corridors the winter session isn’t a done deal any more than the disability benefits was a week ago. Indeed, Likud apparatchiks are already thinking about ads for the upcoming elections that tout the party’s achievement in helping people with disabilities.