Late last month, Haaretz’s Yossi Verter described a heated argument in the Knesset Finance Committee between Joint Arab List MK Ahmad Tibi and me. Verter wondered why I had tried to prevent the transfer of funds to the ultra-Orthodox community.
I know Verter’s claims very well; they’ve been hurled at me ever since I began fighting Israel’s system of budget transfers. People say: “You’re too stubborn!” “Go with the flow!” “That’s how we’ve been doing it for years!”
And so, because hanging in the balance are tens of billions of shekels of public money – not of the Knesset members begging me to give in – I think I should give my version of the events.
What happened that morning is very typical of the way the Finance Ministry works. At the beginning of the Finance Committee meeting the MKs were presented with a request for a 119-million-shekel ($30 million) budget transfer from various budget items to the Culture and Sports Ministry.
Why are we transferring such a large sum only a month after approving the state budget? As usual, there were no answers. This is the irresponsible method by which taxpayer money has been managed for years. The Knesset approves a budget filled with promises and immediately tens of billions of shekels flow through the back door unsupervised.
Luckily for the officials at the Finance Ministry, some committee members will fight the battle for them to preserve this institutionalized corruption; for example, Tibi.
Buried inside the 119 million shekels was the 9 million shekels that Tibi had obtained in an agreement with the cabinet. This significant detail was covered up in Verter’s column – that a vote wasn’t held over an individual budget item transferring funds to the Arab community, but over the entire amount.
In other words, we were asked to vote on dozens of budget items as a single item, including cuts in the budgets of the Housing and Construction Ministry and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which are already impoverished.
I asked for a serious discussion – as the law requires – to understand where every shekel was going. If we’re denied the opportunity to ask questions, we’re denied the ability to guard the public coffers. I doubt that if this were the private bank account of one of the MKs who urged me to “flow with the committee,” he or she would have treated the shady financial deal with the same negligence.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. The minute the state is run without a real planned budget with clear, written goals, every day becomes a day for shady deals.
Politicians demand a “tax” in return for their vote and promotion of legislation; this tax comes in the form of budgets that serve their interests. Local authorities in outlying areas and NGOs that help the needy don’t find pledged funds in the official budget, so they appeal to the ministers involved all year long.
When the stories about a politician who demanded that a mayor give a job to a crony in return for public funds reach the police, you’ll know where the stories began.
Because of this system our money has fallen victim to never-ending extortion. So how has it survived for decades? Well, the government has a way to make the opposition cooperate: It simply transfers a million to MKs so they can present it as an “achievement.” In other words, hush money is paid in return for collaboration in the huge fraud known as the state budget.
This is how the government can declare it’s concerned about integrating weaker segments of society into the labor market, but it’s actually cutting back on these budgets. This is how the government can say it’s safeguarding the country’s outskirts, but it’s actually funneling enormous sums to the settlements.
And as for the absurd claims of racism: Anyone who demands that I treat an Arab MK’s budget deal with the government differently just because he’s an Arab is saying he thinks Arab MKs must be treated as beggars deserving mercy, not as ordinary MKs.
Instead, they deserve a serious plan for reducing inequality that appears as an open commitment in the state budget, not as an item on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s list of deals.
By the way, two days after Tibi received the 9 million shekels, the Finance Committee was asked to approve 66 million shekels in budget cuts for encouraging employment of Arabs and ultra-Orthdodox Jews. I fought against this brutal cut. Guess who didn’t even bother to show up?
Voters didn’t send me to the Knesset for me to “flow” with the tainted processes that have become routine in the legislature. The opposite is true. People are fed up with the way the money they work so hard for flows unimpeded from their pockets to the country’s darkest corners.
Stav Shaffir is a Zionist Union MK and head of the Knesset’s Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information.
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