Likud party leader and opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu is facing rare, open rebellion from within his party over his decision not to support a coalition bill to fund tuition scholarships for newly released Israel Defense Forces soldiers.
Despite ideologically supporting the bill, Netanyahu has argued that it is more important to show that the government, which recently lost its majority, is unable to pass legislation than to advance this specific measure.
But the issue of welfare and benefits for IDF soldiers and veterans is a touchstone for many segments of Israeli society and to be seen deliberately voting against them was too much for many Likud faction members.
“IDF soldiers are the iron wall that stands between us and our enemies and gives life to the State of Israel,” MK Yoav Gallant — a former IDF general — tweeted Wednesday. “I will continue to lead the effort to persuade members of the Likud faction to unanimously support the proposal.”
Druze MK Fateen Mulla also tweeted that he would support the “bill and any future law that benefits our soldiers who do much to keep us safe. I will do my best to get this law passed!”
Aware of the predicament Likud lawmakers were in, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in a joint statement that they would bring the bill for a roll call on Monday.
In a roll call vote, the Knesset roster is read and each MK votes aloud.
“All discharged fighters and their families will be able to watch Likud MKs on live broadcast,” the statement read, with the implication that MKs would be publicly shamed if they voted against the bill.
“We call on members of the opposition to put politics aside, for the sake of our men and women soldiers,” it continued.
The broadly popular tuition scholarship program, called “MeMadim LeLimudim,” or “From Uniforms to Studies,” provides a two-thirds tuition scholarship for former combat or special situation soldiers toward earning an academic degree. An initiative of former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, the scholarships started in 2016 and were intended to make educational opportunities more accessible to soldiers without means.
Among the special situations addressed by the bill are soldiers from economically disadvantaged homes, Druze and Arab soldiers, lone soldiers who serve without immediate family in Israel, and new immigrant soldiers.
Funding was initially provided by private donor organizations, but in order to cut down on conditions imposed upon the grants, the government, led by Gantz, now wants to fund the scholarships through the Defense Ministry. To be part of the defense budget, the scholarships need to be approved by law.
In response to the debate within Likud over whether to support the bill, Netanyahu called Gantz on Wednesday afternoon to open negotiations on passing the bill with Likud cooperation — provided that the coalition augment the bill to increase funding from two-thirds to 100 percent of the cost of tuition.
Likud has previously made this suggestion, and like in the past, it was not taken seriously by the coalition.
Increasing the scholarships to full funding would add about an additional NIS 50 million to the budget, according to sources from Likud, Blue and White, and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in which the bill was prepared for its final readings.
While it is not apparently clear why pushing the level of funding to 100% would be a stumbling block, coalition sources reiterated that the program has always been for 66% tuition coverage. Additionally, soldiers have an option to self-fund a portion of the remaining tuition from their military deposits, a special bank account that the military accrues on behalf of soldiers that can be immediately drawn upon for education.
After the coalition announced it would have a roll call vote next week, Likud shot back at Gantz, accusing him of torpedoing behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Despite overwhelming support for the bill, the coalition is hampered by the Ra’am party’s reluctance to support it.
Although the bill is only to fund educational stipends to former soldiers — including Arab soldiers — the fact that it touches upon the military is enough to make it uncomfortable for the Islamist Arab party.
Only last week, Ra’am returned from a three-week coalition “freeze,” called in protest of the state’s handling of clashes between police and Palestinians on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
Ra’am, however, is bound by coalition agreements and has bridged this gap in the past, lending its support to a recent enlistment law to promote Haredi participation in the IDF.
The party withheld its support on Monday, but Ra’am has reportedly signaled it could support a vote next week if the security situation remains quiet.
However, within Ra’am too there is no agreement.
One of Ra’am’s four lawmakers, MK Mazen Ghanaim, declared that he and his party would not support the law.
“It’s a law that was supposed to be brought to vote two days ago, but Ra’am was against it,” Ghanaim told Arabic-language Radio Makan on Wednesday. “We will vote against it, it’s not a secret. If Gantz and parts of the coalition bring the law to vote — they’ll fail.”