Bottom Shekel / The Filibuster That Wasn't

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz breathed easier on Wednesday. After just three and a half hours of discussion, the draft budget for the years 2009 and 2010 passed its first of three readings into law in the Knesset plenum. And it did so without any blood being shed in parliament.

In the past, the ceremony of the finance minister presenting the budget was a ceremonious affair. The plenum would be full. Knesset members would deliver blistering speeches, whether arguing for or thundering against.

Not this time. The great hall of Knesset was practically empty. The members of the opposition simply boycotted the whole process and the budget was thus passed after a dull discussion, by the few people there, with hardly any objections being raised. The 61 coalition members voted yea, four rebels from Labor abstained. And that was that.

A few members of the coalition did come to voice their thoughts, but the number of MKs present at the discussion was less than the number of Finance Ministry officials sitting on the balcony listening to their minister speak.

The opposition members boycotted the discussion on the budget and accompanying Economic Arrangements bill to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intention of pushing through a number of laws concerning governance next week. The laws would have the effect of buttressing his rule.

For years, it had been the norm for the opposition to filibuster the budget discussions, in the Israeli context meaning deliberately delaying the vote by holding endless speeches and picking fights. Not this time. The only sound heard was that of silence, in their absence.

By virtue of the opposition's absence, Kadima party whip MK Dalia Itzik managed to obtain more press coverage than if the party had indulged in the usual budget filibuster.

The truth is that the message arising from the hasty debate on the budget is simply that despite the global economic crisis the MKs don't really care about the budget and economic policy.

And that's just the beginning. From Sunday the various Knesset committees, including the Finance Committee, will begin their analyses of the budget and its accompanying bill. It's hard to expect those discussions to be any deeper. The committees were given just 18 days for their deliberations over a budget for two years and the Economic Arrangements bill, which together comprise hundreds of pages.

Sixty-four Knesset members, after excluding the prime minister, ministers, their deputies, the Knesset speaker and the 16 committee chairmen, half of them new, will be scurrying between the various committees holding the various discussions at the same time. These tyros and even the more experienced parliamentarians will get completely lost in the maze of Sisyphean debates on complicated budgetary issues and major economic reforms.

We know how this will end.

On July 15, hands will be raised and the budget, and the Economic Arrangements Law, will pass. Steinitz will cross it off his to-do list and exchange an embrace with Netanyahu. Dalia Itzik and the opposition chief, Tzipi Livni, will attack the budget.

The right thing to do would be for Steinitz, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Itzik to team up and write a bill proposing the creation of a Knesset budget committee. Its job would be to discuss the budget all year round, to supervise the government and to spare us the yearly farce of the budget filibuster.