Israel Okays Unplanned Budget Cuts to Fund Amona Move, Shas Schools

Ministers approve $311.7 million in reductions after vote is scheduled at eleventh hour.

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Settlers protest at the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona, December 19, 2016.
Settlers protest at the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona, December 19, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

In a hasty and unplanned vote, the cabinet on Sunday approved a 1.25% cut in the 2017 budget, stripping tens of millions of shekels from the education and higher education budgets, to fund the evacuation of the Amona outpost and boost spending on schools affiliated with the Shas Party.

All told, ministers approved cuts of 1.2 billion shekels ($311.7 million) to help cover the added costs of the evacuation, which is due to take place in the coming days, and to meet the spending demands of coalition parties.

The reductions include 101 million shekels from education and another 24 million shekels from higher education, as well as a cut of 156 million shekels for transportation development and 185 million from defense. The spending cuts appeared to be evenly spread between different parts of the budget.

However, in exchange, the cabinet agreed to allocate 110 million shekels to evacuate 40 families from the illegal outpost in the West Bank: 70 million shekels for the actual evacuation, and another 40 million shekels for the settlers’ “rehabilitation.”

Moreover, the Shas school network will receive an extra 260 million shekels – for everything from administrative costs to music lessons and road safety instructions.

In addition, allocations for items covered in the coalition agreement grew by 325 million shekels, to a total of 1 billion shekels. Another 115.5 million shekels was added to the budget for state-religious schools, even though they enjoy higher spending per student than any other religious stream, and 18 million shekels for Torah and Jewish studies in secular schools.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Arye Dery in the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman

The vote on changes to the budget was scheduled at the last minute, and ministers were given almost no time to examine or discuss them. The vote was not on the cabinet agenda issued last week, and treasury officials hadn’t had time to prepare the changes.

The decisions regarding the budget adjustments were all made in a closed forum of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and top officials from their two offices.

Afterward, in order to get the changes organized and put into a format ministers could vote on, the start of the cabinet meeting was delayed by an hour, to 11:30 A.M.

Netanyahu and Kahlon justified the rapid-fire move on the grounds that there is little time left before the December 31 deadline for the Knesset to approve the 2017-18 budget. In any case, they argued, ministers were aware before Sunday about most of the planned adjustments.

Despite the last-minute notices, ministers who protested did so mostly about cuts to their own ministries’ budgets, which they claimed were unfair. In the end, though, only Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan voted against the changes, saying the reductions in his ministry’s budget would harm programs to step up law enforcement in the Arab community and strengthen policing in Jerusalem.

The deliberations devolved into a war of words between the Likud MK and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

Erdan accused the Habayit Hayehudi lawmaker of “worrying only about your constituency” – namely settlers and Orthodox Jews. Shaked shouted back, “Liar, liar, liar!” – to which Erdan responded, “Really! As if you care about Kibbutz Yotvata” in southern Israel. Shaked shot back, “Yes, we care about kibbutzim because they are guarding the country’s land!”

Erdan said the two later apologized for the shouting match.