Religious Parties Up Their Demands in Coalition Talks

Benjamin Netanyahu's government will increase funding for religious seminary students by 30 to 50 percent, senior officials from ultra-Orthodox parties told Haaretz yesterday, following negotiations on the formation of a coalition with Likud.

The increase in funding would apply to married yeshiva students aged 18 and over, and single adult students of higher education yeshivas, the politicians said, adding they would not join the coalition if their demands are not met. Senior officials in Shas said the ultra-Orthodox parties are united in this demand.

The additional cost to the budget is estimated at the vicinity of NIS 130 million. One Shas official said the budget hike that the religious parties are demanding "in not below NIS 1 billion." The entire budget for ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in 2008 was NIS 680 million.

The added funds would translate into a monthly stipend of NIS 1,000 for married yeshiva students, instead of the current NIS 700. For singles, the stipend could reach NIS 600 instead of NIS 400.

The religious parties - United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Shas and Habayit Hayehudi - also demanded that the hike be afforded for in the budget's basic outline.

Until now, funds allotted for yeshiva students were later additions to the budget, and not part of the basic program.

The three parties are also demanding that the budget for special financial support for families with many children be raised to NIS 1.5 billion. Senior officials from these parties said they estimate that Likud needs their parties to form a narrow rightist government, and will therefore agree to their demands. Shas' negotiating team met with its Likud counterpart yesterday after a three-day hiatus in the talks.

UTJ chairman Yaakov Litzman said that even with the increase demanded by the religious parties, the stipends would not reach their 2002 level, before they were drastically cut. Before the cut, married yeshiva students were eligible for a monthly stipend of NIS 1,300 and singles received NIS 730.

Other demands by the religious parties pertain to the allotment of ministerial portfolios. Shas is demanding the interior, housing and religion ministries, and a ministerial position within the treasury. Another Shas demand is to lower value added tax by one percent, to 14.5 percent.

Habayit Hayehudi is demanding the education ministry and a deputy ministerial position. The party's central demand pertains to the allotment of damages to Israelis evicted from the Gaza Strip in 2004.

UTJ's personnel demands are to head the Knesset Finance Committee, and a deputy ministerial appointment to the housing or religion ministries.