Steinitz Shreds Railways Plan

Only four out of eight rail lines that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu envisioned laying down have survived the ax wielded by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on Thursday. That's the best-case scenario for the sweeping program the prime minister was pushing, and more may fall by the wayside.

The projects slated to survive, for the nonce, after Steinitz's tense Thursday meeting with Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, and the plan's author, prime ministerial adviser Uri Yogev, include electrification of certain main rail lines, and laying lines between Acre and Carmiel, certain (not all) segments of the Haemek train line, and certain segments of the future eastern line.

As for the roads, only one major project survived the cuts, and not in full: extending the Trans-Israel Highway. It might be extended southward to the Mashabei Sadeh intersection, or northward to the Kabri intersection, but not both. In no case will the road be extended to Kiryat Shmona.

Steinitz also agreed to upgrades of certain highways in the north (including Acre-Amiad and Afula-Kedarim) and some roads in the south.

By now it is clear that Netanyahu's promise to connect Kiryat Shmona to Eilat by rail is void. Nor will trains run to Tiberias and Safed. If the Haemek line is indeed laid down, it won't reach the destinations the prime minister promised, and almost certainly won't extend to Beit She'an. The eastern line may extend from Lod to Hadera via Rosh Ha'ayin and Kfar Sava, but apparently won't continue north to Afula.

Sources near the plan said last night that Netanyahu's grand flagship program is turning into a mini-plan shaped by the budgets department at the Finance Ministry.

The mood through most of the Thursday meeting was highly charged. Steinitz argued that the cost of the plan, as formulated by Yogev and advanced by Netanyahu, would be prohibitive: While Yogev calculates its cost at NIS 51 billion, the Finance Ministry estimates NIS 83 billion. As execution is to be spread over just 10 to 15 years, Steinitz said, the burden on the budget would be tremendous.

He would not only be forced to vote against the plan if delivered as-is in cabinet, Steinitz warned: He would voice his opposition in public. Yogev does not bear the budgetary responsibility, Steinitz added: the finance minister does.

Turning to Netanyahu, Steinitz urged that while Yogev gives advice, he doesn't grasp their budgetary significance and ramifications for education, health-care and welfare. To drive home his point, Steinitz attached budget estimates to each of Yogev's proposals. He said Finance Ministry officials are already preparing a draft budget for 2011-2012, and it is already clear that money will be tight.

The transportation minister, Katz, struck a pragmatic note. Calling the grand plan impractical and rife with gratuitous projects (finance officials had called it "megalomaniac"), he suggested that a few of the sensible ones be implemented at a cost of NIS 20 billion to NIS 30 million. The Finance Ministry officials at the meeting agreed.

The ministers agreed that the plan will not be raised for voting by the cabinet soon, as had been promised.