It All Depends on the Child Allowances

The last obstacle in the way of the disengagement is the budget. If Sharon does not have a majority for the budget on March 31, the next elections will be held on Tuesday, June 28. This is what the law stipulates.

Three months ago, on the eve of the "putsch" in the Knesset, Education Minister Limor Livnat was a senior member of the group of plotters that wanted to topple Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Then, on that fateful night, when the vote on the disengagement was teetering in the balance, Livnat was Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's closest ally.

Livnat recanted within two days. It took Netanyahu two weeks. But now, as Netanyahu continues to view the disengagement without a national referendum as "a tragedy that will lead to a sharp rift in the nation," Livnat has gone over to Sharon's side. On Wednesday, she met with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Shas MK Eli Yishai to renew the negotiations for the entry of Shas into the government. It is clear to her that if Shas enters the government, the disengagement will be carried out without a referendum.

This is because the last obstacle in the way of the disengagement is the budget. If Sharon does not have a majority for the budget on March 31, the next elections will be held on Tuesday, June 28. This is what the law stipulates. But the moment that Shas votes in favor of the budget, the final obstacle in the way of the disengagement will have been removed, the Sharon government will survive, the disengagement will be carried out - and Sharon will go down in history.

And lest there be any doubt: Those who are now demanding a referendum have only one aim - to torpedo the disengagement and eliminate Sharon. They believe that despite the real majority that exists in the nation for carrying out the disengagement, on the ground the situation will be different. The right will go from house to house, it will invest millions of dollars (of the taxpayer's money, of course) in propaganda and will come out to vote in full force. The center and the left, however, will doze at home, in the hope that others will do the work for them.

Another possibility is frittering the issue away. By the time the referendum law is formulated and by the time all the appeals have worked their way the attorney general through the courts, many months will have gone by. Sharon will have lost his momentum and his status vis-a-vis U.S. President George W. Bush and the world (as someone who made a promise and did not keep it) - and who knows, he's no spring chicken.

Even if there is a referendum and Sharon wins it by a majority of 55 percent to 54 percent, this will not convince the opponents because they will say that the majority was obtained with the help of the Arabs and the move does not have a Jewish majority - and therefore the disengagement must not be carried out.

To get the budget passed, and thus carry out the disengagement, Livnat yesterday made alternative proposals to Shas. She offered help with tuition fees, an expansion of the school lunch project and help in payments to schools. These are offers that come instead of Shas' main aim: increasing the National Insurance Institute child allowances. Rabbi Yosef defined Livnat's proposals as "offers in good taste," but Eli Yishai says that Shas has no intention of budging on the issue of the allotments to families with many children.

And indeed this is a matter of principle of the first order. During the past 20 years the ultra-Orthodox have acted to increase the allotments for children - on condition that this applies from the fifth child on. They reached the peak of their achievements in January, 2001, when the allotment for the fifth child onward was increased to NIS 856 monthly - five times (!) the allotment for the first child, which stood at NIS 171.

The aim was to enable ultra-Orthodox families to live without working at all by relying on the child allotments, guaranteed income allotments, kollel (adult yeshiva) allotments and various grants. At the same time, Bedouin and Muslim families with many children also benefited from the new law - it is clear that this was not the intention of Shas, the Likud and United Torah Judaism.

In June, 2003, Netanyahu turned back the wheel. The Likud-Shinui government passed a law that equalized the child allotments, and had multiple objectives. First of all, to save billions in the budget. Secondly, to redress the great injustice that had been done to the secular families that have only two or three children. They work hard, pay taxes and serve in the army - so why do they deserve a child allotment that is one fifth of that of a fifth child?

Third, to bring the people of Israel back to work, because this is the only way to emerge from poverty: to stop living off the dole. Fourth, to stop encouraging larger family sizes, to try to reduce the number of people living below the poverty line.

Eli Yishai's basic political interest is not to enter the government. He wants to remain in the opposition so that he will be able to continue attacking the government on the social issue, as well as to oppose the disengagement. In this way he gains doubly - both the public that has been hurt economically and is feeling oppressed and the right wing of the Likud. Yishai's aim is to increase the strength of Shas in the next elections to 17 Knesset members and thereby show everyone that not only Aryeh Deri can do it.

From a different angle, there is also the matter of national responsibility. This is because maybe, despite everything, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who deep down is a dove and not a hawk, will realize that without him the disengagement will be thwarted, the state will continue to wallow in blood in Gaza and the prospects for peace will disappear. All of this might lead him to join the Sharon government even without the child allotments.