The 2009 Budget / Bar-On's Wily Maneuvering

Finance Minister Roni Bar-On executed two clever maneuvers relating to the 2009 budget, which currently has a NIS 7 billion shortfall. In previous years, the treasury would propose a list of suggested cuts, sparking months of draining battles with cabinet ministers. But Bar-On decided "never again." Instead, he told the cabinet: You're the sovereign, you decide. You decide how much to cut and where. You decide between defense and welfare.

The second maneuver was even craftier. The government usually finds it much harder to cut the defense budget than to cut from other ministries, and this has been even more true since the Second Lebanon War. So Bar-On set a trap. Personally, he said, he recommends cutting a mere NIS 2.1 billion from the NIS 56 billion defense budget, inferring that if we do that, we can get away with minimal cuts in other items. The alternative is a long list of steep cuts in welfare payments, including old-age pensions, child allowances and maternity leave. So, go ahead - you decide.

Bar-On would like the cabinet to approve the 2009 budget before his Kadima Party holds its primary next month. That means the cabinet would have to hold at least two meetings on the budget, including a vote, in the next four weeks. But given the government's weakened condition, the election fever in Kadima and the severity of the proposed budget cuts, it seems doubtful that Bar-On will achieve his goal.

Why does he care? For two reasons. First, the cabinet's approval would bind any new government that might arise following the Kadima primary, and Bar-On believes the current budget is a good one. Second, the law states that the budget must be submitted to the Knesset no later than 60 days before the end of the year. And Bar-On knows that if the budget is not approved before Kadima's primary, it is unlikely to be approved before the end of the year.

One thing, however, seems certain: Even if the cabinet approves the budget, its chances of passing the current fragmented Knesset by the December 31 deadline look close to zero.