Gafni Delays Vote on Budget Cut for Yeshivas

Gafni is forcing Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to try to reach a compromise.

The chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) is delaying the vote on the cabinet's decision of 10 days ago to cut NIS 2 billion from the 2009 budget - including a NIS 314 million reduction in the budget for yeshivas.

While the Knesset's winter session officially opens tomorrow, Gafni is refusing to assemble the Finance Committee to debate the cuts intended to reduce funding for most ministries and funnel the money to defense and to fight swine flu. Gafni is forcing Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to try to reach a compromise.

The two will meet on Wednesday, and Gafni will recommend the treasury use its budget reserves and surpluses to cancel the cut to yeshiva budgets. Gafni will tell Steinitz that just as the cabinet scaled back the cuts in the education budget from 2% to only 1%, the same can be done for yeshivas.

So far, Gafni has been trying to fight the cuts quietly and behind the scenes with the treasury, especially after he enabled the passing of the two-year 2009-2010 budget quickly - only three months ago. But, in private, he has vented his fury over the intended cut for yeshiva budgets, as the coalition agreement with UTJ specifically states that any across-the- board cuts will not apply to the budget for yeshivas.

This is considered an important test for Gafni in the ultra-Orthodox world. He can not allow himself to be viewed by his constituency as being the one to allow this cut.

Steinitz, for his part, needs Gafni not only to place the entire cut on the committee's agenda, but also to put together a majority to pass the measure.

Gafni is working against the cuts in coordination with the chairman of Shas, Interior Minister Eli Yishai. If Steinitz can get UTJ, Shas and Habayit Hayehudi behind the cuts, then he will be able to put Likud rebels in line and build a committee majority, which he does not have for now. At least 13 of the 17 committee members say they oppose the cuts - at the moment - including four religious and ultra-Orthodox members from the coalition: Gafni; Yitzhak Cohen and Yitzhak Vaknin, both of Shas; and Uri Orbach of Habayit Hayehudi. In addition to the six opposition members on the Finance Committee, another three coalition members also oppose the cuts: Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) and MKs Miri Regev and Zion Fanian of Likud.

Knesset sources assume a solution will ultimately be found to cancel the yeshiva cut or at least a way to reduce it, and Gafni will be able to support the proposal. There are several reasons why both sides want a compromise: Yishai, who has received quite a large number of important cabinet posts and other benefits, is not looking for a crisis right now; nor is Gafni, who won the Finance Committee chairmanship in an all-out battle with former chairman Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also not interested in a coalition crisis just when he is busy with political and diplomatic matters - and needs the support of the ultra-Orthodox.

Apparently the cut for yeshiva students will itself be cut back, and the general public will once again pay the price in the form of larger cuts in welfare, housing, employment, education and other areas.