ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Ben Gvir says party opposes budget over lack of funds ‘to Judaize Negev and Galilee’

Despite receiving NIS 460m ($125m) from NIS 13.7b ($3.7b) in cabinet-approved discretionary funds, far-right Otzma Yehudit demands more money for northern and southern regions

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ministers from the far-right Otzma Yehudit slammed the proposed state budget on Sunday over dissatisfaction with the amount of discretionary funding allocated to the Negev, Galilee and National Resilience Ministry, which the party holds.

In statements leaked from Sunday’s closed cabinet meeting, firebrand party leader and police minister Itamar Ben Gvir said that “we are opposed to this budget” and called the distribution unfair.

His party colleague Negev and Galilee Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf added that the low allocation “is also a violation of what we were promised in coalition agreements. I hope the budget will not pass as it is.”

The two expressed their frustration just a week after a NIS 12.4 billion ($3.4 billion) draft of discretionary funding attached to the two-year 2023-2024 budget was made public. The Negev and Galilee Ministry received NIS 460 million ($125 million) from the pot, according to analysis by the Berl Katznelson Foundation.

Despite Otzma Yehudit’s ministers withholding their votes, the cabinet approved an expanded NIS 13.7 billion ($3.7 billion) in discretionary funding. United Torah Judaism ministers Yitzhak Goldknopf and Meir Porush also opposed the move.

Ben Gvir and his party are the most fragile link in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, and behind closed doors their coalition partners single Ben Gvir out as the most likely to topple the alliance before the 2026 national elections.

Last week, a previous coalition crisis initiated by Ben Gvir was solved with Israel’s entry into a military operation in Gaza, which he leveraged to unilaterally end his coalition boycott.

File: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (right) and Negev, Galilee and National Resilience Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf, in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Despite the NIS 460 million boost the Negev and Galilee Ministry will receive, Ben Gvir accused Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of prioritizing his own Religious Zionism party’s interests in the budgeting process.

“We cannot forget the Negev and the Galilee. The distribution should be fair. It is not possible for Smotrich to take three billion for himself and leave the Negev and the Galilee without a budget,” Ben Gvir said in the cabinet meeting.

Turning to Smotrich, with whom Ben Gvir ran on a joint ticket in the 2022 election, the police minister added that “finance minister is an important position. But you have to remember that the 14 seats we received together are from people who want to Judaize the Negev and the Galilee.”

Both Ben Gvir’s and Smotrich’s parties are staunch supporters of Jewish control over Israel’s lands, and promised to support Jewish community-building in less populated and poorly governed sectors of the country, most of them in the southern Negev desert and the northern Galilee.

“There are only 14% Jews left in the Galilee. We want to Judaize the the region, but without a budget we won’t be able to do it,” Wasserlauf said to the cabinet. “I am disappointed and angry. This is an injury to the Negev and the Galilee… It is easy for Bezalel to negotiate with himself.”

The state budget must be approved by the end of May, or the coalition may face snap elections.

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