Cabinet approves NIS 1.45 billion budget increase for disabled

Cabinet approves NIS 1.45 billion budget increase for disabled

Additional aspects of long-sought agreement to be hammered out in budget negotiations next month

Disabled people and their supporters block the entrance to Jerusalem in protest of inadequate stipends, September 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Disabled people and their supporters block the entrance to Jerusalem in protest of inadequate stipends, September 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government gave initial approval to a plan to increase the budget for disabled Israelis’ benefits by NIS 1.45 billion ($416 million) on Sunday, in an attempt to reach an agreement with disabled activists who have been holding traffic-halting demonstrations throughout 2017.

The proposed budget increase is set to go into effect beginning in 2018, but requires approval from the Knesset before it can be fully implemented. Disabled activists have given the government until December 31 to pass the bill, threatening to bring back their highway-blocking protests if it does not.

The proposal, which was put forward by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Welfare Minister Haim Katz, will also include an additional NIS 50 million ($14.3 million) specifically for blind Israelis.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (L) attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on December 24, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Today, the cabinet will approve the start of the implementation of the agreement with the handicapped,” Netanyahu said ahead of the vote. “This is very good news.”

With the approval of the cabinet, the proposal is slated to move to the Knesset. A first vote on the agreement, which was struck with groups representing disabled Israelis, was initially scheduled for Monday, but it was later pushed back to later in the week.

Wheelchair-bound Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar skewered the government for putting off the vote.

“The hearing that was supposed to happen tomorrow regarding the disabled has been put off because of a fight for credit, because the ministers are only focused on themselves, on their headlines, on who gets all the honor, who gets more publicity,” said Elharrar.

The rest of the deal, which is said to include billions more in funding for disabled Israelis, will be part of the upcoming discussions on the 2019 budget.

“[Sunday’s vote] will be followed up in our January 11 vote on the budget. I think that this is very major progress and is, in effect, a change that hasn’t been seen for decades, which constitutes genuine consideration for a needy population,” Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Groups representing disabled Israelis largely praised the progress on the issue, but some took issue with some aspects of the agreement, namely that tens of thousands of disabled elderly Israelis were being included in it, which threatened to lessen the amount of funding per person.

Disabled activists block a road in Jerusalem as part of their campaign for better benefits, October 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Over recent months, disabled groups have been leading protests that have brought traffic to a standstill by blocking junctions, highways and major arterial streets in cities throughout the country.

Protests by the disabled began in March after a Knesset committee rejected for the third time a bill aimed at bringing disabled benefits up to the level of the minimum wage.

They continued throughout the summer while the Knesset was in recess and had ramped up in recent weeks, pushing the issue to the top of the national agenda with protests causing major traffic jams daily.

Illustrative: Disabled protesters blocking a highway outside the town of Yekum on August 14, 2017, as part of demonstrations for higher monthly disability benefits. (Flash90)

Under the proposed deal, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others called “historic,” benefits for the some 244,000 disabled Israelis will rise from NIS 700-1,800 ($198 to $509) per month in four stages, from January 2018 to January 2021, at a total cost of NIS 4.2 billion ($1.19 billion).

People with 60 percent disability will end up with NIS 2,100 ($594) in monthly benefits by 2021, with the most disabled — those needing full-time care — receiving NIS 4,500 ($1,274).

This falls short of the disabled organizations’ demand for the maximum benefit to equal the minimum wage of NIS 5,300 ($1,500) — as opposed to the current proposal of pegging it to average wage — and for rise to be made all at once, but the government pledged to consider raising the maximum to this figure at the end of the four years.

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