JERUSALEM — THE Israeli government is expected to present its 1992 budget for a crucial parliamentary vote this week. The vote risks the collapse of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's fragile ruling coalition just as Israel is expected to start bilateral peace talks in Washington.The budget has been stymied for more than a month because of a funding dispute among religious members of the coalition with both orthodox and ultra-orthodox parties warning they will not support the bill unless their demands are met. A budget vote in the Knesset (parliament) is considered tantamount to a vote of confidence in the government. The tussle has again revealed the disproportionate power that small parties can wield in Israel's coalition system of government to ensure their interests are met. The Knesset must approve a budget by the end of the year. At the same time, the battle for public monies to fund religious schools and individual Knesset members' pet projects is increasingly costing religious parties the respect of secular Israelis. The "special allocations" of government money to religious schools, clubs, benevolent associations, and other bodies "has caused terrible harm to religious Jewry," complains Avner Shaki, the Minister for Religious Affairs. His orthodox National Religious Party (NRP) has led the fight - against angry opposition from ultra-orthodox haredi parties - to reform the system.
Religious turf battle The current controversy pits the NRP, a traditional Zionist party that has been in government coalitions almost continually since the State of Israel was founded, against three ultra-orthodox parties whose strength within the religious community is growing - Shas, Agudat Yisrael, and Degel Hatora. The two sides "are engaged in a really nasty confrontation for membership and power," says Rabbi Joel Oseran, a member of the Reform movement. "This is a battle to hold on to religious turf." That battle is now being waged most fiercely around the special-allocations issue, a system whereby religious institutions have been granted lump sums of public money annually to spend as they please, with no government oversight. The sums involved - approximately $200 million last year - are not allotted according to the number of members in a particular institution, but are negotiated as the price of the sponsoring party's support for the government. The lack of public control over the money offers clear opportunities for corruption, critics say. A Shas Knesset member, Yair Levy, is to be tried next February on charges of stealing more than $200,000 from his party's social fund. Equally disturbing to opponents of the system is the atmosphere of politically shady deals that pervades it. "This is not a proper way to allocate money in the democratic and developed country that we wish to be," says Amir Shacham of the Israel Religious Action Center, a group sponsored by the Reform movement to challenge the special allocations legally. Long a stumbling block for secular Jews, the special allocations have also drawn the wrath of the NRP, which controls state-run schools - both secular and religious - through its traditional control of the Ministries of Education and Religious Affairs. "We have nothing against giving each educational system what it needs," Dr. Shaki says. "But they should be given money according to the number of students they have. "The Shas system [of independent religious schools] spends twice as much money per pupil as a government religious school," he adds. "This is discrimination." Ultra-orthodox proponents of special allocations say they need government money to preserve their particular Jewish way of life, and point out that the NRP has enjoyed such funding in the past. The ultra-orthodox parties are growing, while the NRP is shrinking, says Rabbi Menachem Porush, leader of Agudat Yisrael and Deputy Minister of Labor. This is "because our education is much more successful in attracting children to Torah schools," he says, "and because of our cultural activities that allow us to keep contact with our people." Shaki acknowledges a drift away from the government-religious schools to independent schools, particularly those run by Shas. But he attributes this to the way ultra-orthodox parties use special allocations to offer smaller classes, free transport, and free meals. Rabbi Porush believes the NRP, with five Knesset seats, is receiving far fewer special allocations than the three ultra-orthodox parties, with 13 seats, and that this is the reason it is now opposing the system. While Shaki insists that government funding for the independent religious schools and clubs should be channeled through government ministries, Porush worries that the ministries concerned are controlled by NRP ministers. "All that is behind this storm," he says, is the NRP's desire to starve the ultra-orthodox groups of funding. Meanwhile, the dispute has unsettled religious Jews who fear that public haggling over funds, and threats to hold the government to what some see as ransom, are damaging Judaism's image among Israelis. "Society has been manipulated from within" by the ultra-orthodox parties, says Rabbi Oseran. "They are using their political position to further the best self-serving interests that they can."
Loss of respect At the same time, he worries that the average Jew's respect for the way the ultra-orthodox have preserved Jewish learning through the ages is being eroded. "The general response of the Israeli public" to the fight over special allocations "is disdain at best, and outrage and alienation at worst," Oseran says. Although the special-allocations system has fallen into disrepute, and Mr. Shamir has promised to abolish it, the dispute has illustrated again the difficulty of such a move when the government depends for stability on several small religious parties. "In the end it's the number of votes that counts," says Shaki ruefully. "Maybe next year, if we are politically superior, if the NRP wins two or three more seats at the elections, and the haredi lose them, then maybe we can end this system," Shaki says.