The Knesset on Monday interrupted its summer recess for a special plenum session on stipends for Israelis with disabilities, following weeks of nationwide protests that have seen dozens of roads blocked by disability rights activists demonstrating against the slim government payouts.
In June, lawmakers from across the political spectrum urged the government to accept a new plan that would raise the monthly stipend from NIS 2,342 ($660) to NIS 4,000 ($1,130).
The new stipend level would be linked to the minimum wage, which is raised periodically through Knesset legislation. The current stipend level is linked to the consumer price index, which rises more slowly than the minimum wage.
The proposal was a compromise between the demands of disability activists, including MK Ilan Gilon of Meretz, to set the stipend at the minimum wage, or NIS 5,000 ($1,400) per month, and those of a committee appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that recommended a more modest increase to NIS 3,200 ($900) and would limit the increase to those with very severe disabilities and no family.
Dozens of disabled Israelis arrived at the Knesset on Monday to observe the parliamentary debate — which saw fewer than half of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers in attendance — while dozens of others demonstrated outside.
Speaking on behalf of Netanyahu, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the sole representative from the cabinet, reiterated that the government would advance legislation after the holidays to increase the stipends to NIS 3,200 ($900) for those unable to work, and NIS 4,000 ($1,130) for those classified as serious cases. The increase would see a NIS 4 billion ($1.1 billion) jump in government spending on the issue over four years, Litzman said, and would include other benefits.
Opposition lawmakers who had sought to match the disability payments to minimum wage slammed Netanyahu for opposing such a plan. Meretz MK Gilon, himself disabled, told the plenum that all the lawmakers across the political spectrum favored an increase in the disability payments — except for the prime minister.
“The government of Israel is making a joke out of 119 Knesset members,” he said.
“The time has come for us to gather here to listen and make heard the cry of the disabled,” said Joint (Arab) List MK Dov Khenin. “The obvious must be stated: A disabled person is not half a human being. When we reached the conclusion that a person can support himself with dignity with NIS 5,000 [minimum wage] — this is the minimum — we must ensure the exact same thing for the disabled.”
From the coalition, several lawmakers also voiced support for the measure.
“I pledge not to rest; if it doesn’t go forward, nothing else will,” said United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, who heads the powerful Knesset Finance Committee.
The debate also saw some sparring between former finance minister Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party, and Litzman over the state coffers.
“The State of Israel has a lot of money, there is no deficit… there are billions in the coffers. I was the finance minister — I know the numbers, there is money that they [the Israeli government] prefer to give themselves instead of the disabled,” Lapid charged.
“I want to address the remarks of MK Yair Lapid, the former finance minister,” Litzman later said. “He wanted to give NIS 3 billion to the zero-VAT plan — he didn’t give a single shekel to the disabled.”
“It’s better not to lie before Rosh Hashanah,” Lapid hit back. “There was no money then.”
“You had the money, you had 3 billion, we fought in the Finance Committee about it, you wanted to waste it and you didn’t give to the disabled,” said Litzman.
Outside Israel’s parliament, and on Route 1, additional demonstrations were held Monday by the disability rights activists.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.