Labor Ministers Likely to Vote Against NIS 1.3 Billion in Cuts

Labor's ministers are leaning toward opposing the across-the-board cut in ministerial budgets that will be put to a vote at today's cabinet meeting.

The vote was supposed to take place last week, but was postponed at the behest of Labor's chairman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The budget cuts, totaling NIS 1.3 billion, are needed among other things to cover an added NIS 400 million for defense, NIS 344 million for the Home Front Command, and NIS 456 million for education reform.

Olmert will tell his ministers that the government must make this sacrifice for its top priorities of defense and education, and live up to its responsibility for fiscal discipline that promotes economic growth.

The Finance Ministry says the cut means a reduction of 6 percent in the expense budgets of government ministries, the State Comptroller's Office and the Knesset.

This morning, before the cabinet meeting, Labor ministers will hold another consultation to decide how they will vote. At a gathering of party activists last night in Nazareth, Barak said the ministers would oppose the cut.

"The budget must not be slashed, certainly not in the light of the security events that occured last summer," he said.

One Labor minister suggested yesterday that ongoing talks with the treasury may yet yield an arrangement that would let Labor abstain in the vote.

Sources close to Olmert criticized the Labor Party's conduct in this matter.

"The manner in which they are operating is not right," said one Olmert confidant. "What, they expected us to postpone the vote for them once again?"

Senior Labor officials stressed last night that there is no connection between their ministers' vote today on the budget cut and the question of the party's future in the coalition.

"While this vote might leave a bad taste, we have no intention of destroying the government," one senior Laborite said following a conversation with Barak. He added that messages in this vein were conveyed over the weekend to Olmert's bureau.

Olmert is expected this week to appoint MK David Tal (Kadima) as coalition chairman, and MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima) as chair of the Knesset House Committee, sources in Kadima said yesterday.

Barring last-minute changes, this round is likely to disappoint coalition whip Yoel Hasson (Kadima), who was hoping to become coalition chair. A source close to Hasson said that as far as he knows, everything is still open.

The House Committee chair became available with Ruhama Avraham-Balila's appointment as a minister. The post of coalition chair has been vacant since the start of the Knesset's summer session, when Avigdor Yitzhaki quit after demanding Olmert's resignation.

Despite public criticism, Olmert is still thinking of appointing five more deputy ministers, to assuage disappointment in Kadima, which is supposed to get two of those posts. Kadima's candidates are Deputy Knesset Speaker Majali Wahabi and Eli Aflalo. Aflalo is expected to decline, in which case the post may be offered to Hasson, although he is on record as refusing to become a deputy minister.

Shas is staking out a deputy ministership for MK Amnon Cohen.