PM Summons Ministers to Resolve National Service Funding Crunch

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will meet this week with Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and Minister Without Portfolio Ami Ayalon to seek a solution to the crisis over the future of national service, the civilian alternative to army service.

The associations operating the programs have stopped enlisting young people to work in education after the Education Ministry announced a sharp cut in funding.

Some 3,150 young men and women, about one-third of those doing national service work in education, mainly among the poor. The annual budget required is NIS 82 million, however in 2008, the budget was only NIS 34 million, the heads of the associations operating the service have said.

Religious Zionist leaders have said that Tamir's decision to abolish national service in the school system is aimed at the national religious public. The Education Ministry has denied the allegation, citing budget cuts across the board.

The recent cut contradicts a cabinet decision to establish a national service administration, headed by Ayalon, that would expand the national service program from its present majority of Orthodox Jewish participants to Arabs and non-Orthodox young people.

Ayalon said the cuts go against the state's objective to encourage volunteerism. "This is not just a feud between Tamir and the religious Zionism; it is much deeper," Ayalon said. In a recent meeting with Tamir, Ayalon reportedly told her she should cut non-essential personnel in her ministry, such as educational supervisors, rather than the national service budget.

The head of the religious kibbutz movement, Nehemia Rappel, said that the young women doing national service are taking care of poorer people and providing educational activities with values. "It's hard to see how the schools will function without them," he said.

The Education Ministry countered that the cuts were made "to all the ministry's activities and were not directed at one group" but that "political elements" were attempting to hijack the issue.