A Blank Check for a Billion Shekels

In a mockery of procedures, the Finance Committee okayed the transfer of nearly a billion shekels without knowing what it was earmarked for.

Michal Fattal

The Knesset Finance Committee ratified on Monday the transfer of 888 million shekels to the Ministry of Education. The ratification was made without any preceding debate and without committee members knowing what the funds were earmarked for. Almost a billion shekels passed from one side to another under a veil of secrecy, as if these were not funds owned by the citizens of this country, who apparently have no right to know who or what is being funded by their taxes.

The Finance Committee is traditionally controlled by the ruling coalition, but this should not turn it into a rubber stamp. The transfer of 888 million shekels was the pinnacle of absurdity: Two weeks ago, the committee’s chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi) took advantage of the fact that several MKs were late for a meeting and within minutes he ratified, on his own, this transfer of almost one billion shekels. Only two hours later, when he realized that this was a mockery of procedures, he agreed to hold another vote. The farce continued the following week. The committee was scheduled to hold that vote, but members wanted to hold a serious discussion. Even coalition MKs Gila Gamliel (Likud) and Elazar Stern (Hatnuah) were in agreement with the self-evident position that such enormous sums could not be transferred without knowing who the beneficiaries were. Slomiansky realized that he didn’t have a majority for approving the transfer and simply adjourned the session.

The final act in this theater of the absurd unfolded on Monday when the coalition managed to muster enough MKs to ratify the transfer without any debate. MK Stern voted against, saying that he is “ashamed to be part of a coalition that opposes a discussion of 888 million shekels.” Stern’s shame didn’t stand a chance against Slomiansky’s lack of it.

The absurdity is not fortuitous, based on what is known about the intended destination of some of the money. Out of the 888 million shekels, loosely defined as a “budgetary supplement to cover natural growth in the education system,” 110 million were earmarked for religious seminaries that encourage their students to join the army, 17 million were designated for “Jewish culture,” 15 million went to Jewish education in the Diaspora, 1.4 million went to religious education and 78 million were earmarked for education in the settlements. Slomiansky knew very well why he was not allowing any discussion.

Last week there was a court hearing that dealt with a complaint filed by MK Stav Shaffir (Labor) against the Finance Committee and the Treasury. The court called on the government and on MK Shaffir to work out a procedure for dealing with budgetary transfers and changes that are brought before the committee. One can only hope that the new procedures will produce real transparency when it comes to transfer of funds. The public cannot rely on Slomiansky.