The Cost of the Budget

MK Yaakov Litzman knows the political game surrounding the state budget and what it takes to get it passed. Prior to yesterday's budget vote in the Knesset Finance Committee, which Litzman headed until nine months ago, he said he expected that the government would "buy all the coalition members." And he was right.

As every year, the Finance Ministry opened up its coffers just before the vote and threw money at the coalition factions - so as to ensure the budget was passed, along with the reforms contained in the accompanying Economic Arrangements Law. Some of the cost of the approximately NIS 1 billion handed out to the factions by the treasury will come from cuts to government ministries that will be partly imposed on the public.

The strong 78-member coalition was supposed to lower the price of passing the state budget, especially since failing to pass it would lead to early elections on June 30, which does not appeal to any of the coalition factions.

Kadima is being crushed in the opinion polls and the Pensioners are not at all sure they'll win enough votes to make it back into the Knesset, Labor is not strong enough to defeat Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Likud chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu, and Shas is interested in funding ultra-Orthodox institutions - for which it received about NIS 500 million in exchange for its support. Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, on the other hand, is comfortable in the coalition, though if he wants to quit, he'll find a good political reason that will win him support from his voters. As the state coffers overflow, due to the increase in tax income, the budget offers a solution for every party.

Labor Party secretary general Eitan Cabel put together a front of four coalition parties - Shas, the Pensioners, Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu - that opposed the budget's main social-welfare proposals: the imposition of national insurance payments for housewives, a freeze in national insurance benefit allowances, and maintaining an earlier 4 percent cut in these benefits. In order to satisfy everyone and win their support, each of the parties was told that these three elements would be removed.

The parties also received other goodies. Lieberman is slated to get some NIS 200 million, including about NIS 100 million for hospitals in cities including Tiberias, Nahariya, Safed and Ashkelon.

From the perspective of the parties, the major victory was the removal of the treasury's proposal to cut the funding for next November's municipal elections. In this way, they took care not only of their voters, but also of themselves.

"Of all the debate over the budget, they'll remember that we prevented the cut to party funding and not the decrees that were removed," said MK Haim Oron, the former treasurer of Meretz-Yahad. And he was right.