C'tee Vote on Economic Plans Delayed

Braverman infuriates Bar-On, who says rescue being held hostage by politicians.

The meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee yesterday blew up half an hour after it began, after committee chairman Avishay Braverman (Labor) announced he would not call for a vote on the two of the Finance Ministry's three emergency economic plans under discussion: the infrastructure and financial plans.

Braverman explained by saying that the treasury had yet to finish preparing the third part of its rescue package, the pension savings safety net, in such a way that it would also satisfy the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Histadrut labor federation and the Manufacturers Association; he was putting off the vote on the other parts.

Senior treasury officials, and especially Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, were furious. Bar-On demanded the vote be held, telling Braverman: "You have no authority to remove the matter from the agenda. The vote today will not harm the discussions on the safety net." Bar-On called on committee members to vote on the two plans despite Braverman's objections.

The almost entire top level of treasury staff attended the meeting to be ready to respond to questions, including Finance Ministry director general Yarom Ariav.

After a summit meeting yesterday evening between Olmert, Bar-On and the governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, the three decided on steps to clear the bad feelings between the treasury and the Prime Minister's Office, as well as the continuation of high-level discussions to make progress on the safety net proposal.

Olmert claimed at the meeting that his moves were transparent, and had said in advance that he wanted to expand the safety net. He also said that all sides, including the Bank of Israel, wanted such a safety net to guarantee pension savings, and the treasury was the first to raise the question. However, said Olmert, for some reason, the treasury backtracked and decided to declare war on the supporters of the safety net.

At the start of yesterday's cabinet meeting, Olmert said: "I know there was supposed to be a meeting of the Finance Committee today. To my regret, it seems that without agreement on the steps to guarantee pension savings, it is impossible to hold a vote of the committee."

He added that he met on Friday with the chairman of the Histadrut, Ofer Eini, and with the president of the Manufacturers' Association, Shraga Brosh. Olmert said he had tried to come to an agreement with the two over the safety net: "I think such an agreement is important. There is no issue here of political profit, and I will not let this matter become part of the political tension existing on the eve of the elections. We need to take care of hundreds of thousands of savers and we need to guarantee they will not be harmed. In this spirit I hope we will finish the matter in a very sort time," Olmert told the cabinet.

Braverman is running in the Labor primary tomorrow. At the beginning of yesterday's meeting he said he had been updated by Olmert, Eini and employers' representatives - and progress was being made in negotiations. He said the treasury's plan was lacking as they did not include pensions. Therefore, said Braverman, he was allowing the negotiations to continue. However, he did say once the treasury presented a corrected plan, he would convene the committee immediately.

Bar-On responded: "Everyone except for you wants to pass the plan today. If the prime minister told you negotiations are going on, then he seems to know what he is talking about. I do not know with whom," said Bar-On. He answered MKs' questions, saying the negotiations were not being conducted by the treasury.

After the meeting, a furious Bar-On said the treasury's plans were being held hostage by politicians for political purposes. He called Braverman's act pathetic and unbelievable. "They did not ambush me, they ambushed the entire country," he said.

As for Tzipi Livni, the head of his Kadima party, and her views, Bar-On said "she is entitled to think differently, particularly as she is running an election campaign."

Livni said yesterday the plan should be passed, and quickly, but that does not contradict the need to make additions to the plan and provide guarantees for long-term savings.

A number of businessmen said of Braverman's move that it seems he is in a bad position before the primary and needed to do something to improve his standing before the vote - and he was in need of headlines.