PM Fails to Muster Cabinet Majority in Trajtenberg Vote

Ministers balk at Netanyahu demand for fast-tracking recommendations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday evening canceled a planned vote by the cabinet on the Trajtenberg Report. The cancelation came after it emerged that Netanyahu did not have a majority for approving the report, even though he had declared twice that it would be approved yesterday.

Fifteen ministers - from Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Independence, and two from the Likud - opposed approving the report yesterday for various reasons, including the fact that they want more time to study it before voting on it.

Netanyahu's failed effort to force a vote was perceived in the political arena as a personal humiliation for the prime minister, though no one believes it means that the report itself was being buried.

Kadima issued a statement describing the delay as "a vote of no-confidence in Netanyahu," adding that what transpired, "proves that there is no prime minister in Israel, and that in that seat sits a man who is totally disconnected, while being totally engaged in his political survival."

Labor Party chair Shelly Yachimovich chimed in, saying, "Netanyahu's failure to approve the Trajtenberg Report proves that the strength of the protest and its seriousness has trickled down to the ministers, who understand that the report is no more than an accumulation of clauses, some of which are harmful and the others recycled, and that the report is not an adequate response to the public's demand for social justice.

"It's too bad that what has already seeped down to the ministers hasn't yet sunk in to the prime minister, who continues to stick to an extreme capitalist approach that is not acceptable to the public," she said.

The report will be debated further at next week's cabinet meeting, and a vote will presumably be taken then. Despite yesterday's political tensions, the report is expected to be approved.

It was clear, however, that pressure brought to bear on the ministers by leaders of this summer's social protest had had an effect.

For these coalition parties, objecting to a vote yesterday allowed them to look responsible and socially conscious, without having to initiate a real coalition crisis or pick the Trajtenberg Report apart and risk neutering it. This was particularly true for Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, whose constituents - immigrants and the ultra-Orthodox - were not heavily represented in this summer's social protests.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Independence faction, meanwhile, objects to the report's demand for a deep cut in the defense budget. "Voting before a in-depth debate on the ramifications of the [report's] recommendations is an act that is liable to harm the efforts of the protest to bring about real change," the Independence faction said in a statement, without mentioning that one of the most significant "ramifications" is a cut in the defense budget.

Shas, meanwhile, protested that the Trajtenberg Committee recommendations were aimed primarily at easing the burden of the middle class, without dealing with the weaker strata of society who make up much of its constituency. Sources in the party said that its ministers would insist on including some program for public housing as part of the reforms.

"Out objections are substantive," Shas chairman Interior Minister Eli Yishai said. "The weaker classes have been left by the wayside. We will continue to oppose the report until its problematic components are fixed."

Yesterday's cabinet meeting was a lengthy one, lasting from 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. At one point, the meeting was interrupted for 90 minutes while the prime minister and his aides tried to convince the resistant ministers to vote to approve the report.

Netanyahu opened the meeting by praising the Trajtenberg Report, saying that the government would be "changing direction."

"We are changing the national priorities in a wide range of fields... We will discuss [these changes] in this meeting and in follow-up meetings, until decisive proposals are brought to the government. And we will do this responsibly, without increasing the state's overdraft," Netanyahu said.

After the prime minister, the heads of the four Trajtenberg Committee teams made presentations of the report's principal conclusions, using slide presentations. Then, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg himself addressed the ministers, analyzing his panel's conclusions and explaining why the committee did not issue more far-reaching recommendations.

"This report was just the first part," he said. "Now, the struggle goes over to the cabinet and the Knesset, as is appropriate in a democratic state.

"This report will lead to an immediate improvement in the economic state of working families in Israel," Trajtenberg continued. "In parallel, there will have to be a proactive battle against the power of monopolies, to reduce the cost of living for all the country's citizens."

Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, who was also at the meeting, praised the Trajtenberg Committee for structuring its recommendations so as not to exceed the budget framework.

"The world economy is about to go into a recession, and if we don't stay within the expense framework, we will get an economic and financial blow from without," Fischer said.