Netanyahu to coalition partners: 'Get off your high horse'

Dueling ministers said threatening to quit government over budget demands

Finance Minister Smotrich denies report he’s warning he’ll resign if Haredi parties’ demands for further funds are met

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
File: Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzchak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sparring coalition members are threatening to quit the government if their demands are not met in the upcoming budget, in further signs of a deepening coalition crisis, Hebrew media reported Thursday.

Kan news reported that Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will resign from his position if the Haredi parties receive an additional NIS 600 million ($164 million) in the upcoming budget that they have demanded. Smotrich’s office denied he made such a threat.

According to multiple media reports, the Agudat Yisrael faction of the United Torah Judaism party has threatened to pull out of the coalition and vote down the budget if they do not receive the demanded funds.

Agudat Yisrael is citing promises made in their coalition deal with Likud. The ultra-Orthodox parties are seeking the additional NIS 600 million to fund full-time religious scholars in addition to the billions already pledged to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Quoting unnamed sources within the coalition, the Walla news site reported that Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush have threatened to resign from their roles, allowing them to return to the Knesset as the fourth and fifth members of their faction under the so-called Norwegian law in order to vote against the budget.

The Norwegian Law lets a number of cabinet members and deputy ministers from each government party resign their Knesset seats while they hold their ministerial posts. If a minister later resigns from the cabinet, they automatically return to the Knesset, requiring the lawmaker who replaced them in parliament to give up their seat.

The coalition has a majority of 64 members in the Knesset.

File: Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich (standing) with United Torah Judaism leader Yitzchak Goldknopf at the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Agudat Yisrael officials told Channel 12 that the party would not support the budget without the extra funds, adding: “We didn’t follow [Netanyahu] to elections just so that he would violate agreements with us.”

The government must pass a budget before its May 29 deadline, which if not met would trigger an automatic dissolution of parliament and snap elections.

According to Kan, Netanyahu has pressured the Finance Ministry’s Budgets Department head Yogev Gardos to meet with UTJ’s Porush to discuss the demands. The two did meet recently, but ministry officials are opposing the funds due to the potential harm to the economy.

Out of NIS 13.7 ($3.8) billion in discretionary funds approved by the government on Sunday, about NIS 3.7 billion is promised to be spent on increasing the budget for stipends at Haredi yeshiva student institutions, despite criticism that the community’s schools skirt full Education Ministry oversight and fail to teach core subjects to prepare students for the workforce, including math, science and English. Another NIS 1.2 billion is budgeted for private, non-supervised educational institutions, which also do not teach core subjects such as math and English.

About NIS 1 billion is directed as an allowance for a food voucher program being pushed by Shas party leader Aryeh Deri. Additional funds will be funneled for ultra-Orthodox education, constructing religious buildings, and supporting Haredi Jewish culture and identity.

Gardos has warned that the allocation of funds to ultra-Orthodox institutions and initiatives creates negative incentives for Haredi men to seek employment and will harm the country’s labor market and the economy as a whole.

Furthermore, Gardos has cautioned that if the employment participation rate among Haredi men is not encouraged, by 2065 the government will have to increase direct taxes by 16 percent to maintain the same level of services that it provides without increasing the deficit.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (right) walks with Matityahu Dan, chairman of the Ateret Cohanim organization, after a meeting at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, May 7, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Israel’s Haredi community, which makes up about 13.5% of the country’s total population, is expected to grow to 16% by 2030. The ultra-Orthodox population’s current growth rate of 4% is the fastest of any group in Israel, according to Central Bureau of Statistics data.

Adding to the dysfunction, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has ordered Otzma Yehudit lawmakers to boycott Knesset votes in a bid to pressure allied parties to divert more funds to his party’s priorities in the budget — specifically the Negev and Galilee Ministry held by the faction.

Otzma Yehudit has griped that other parties are receiving billions for their projects while it has been given less for issues it wants to advance, particularly encouraging Jewish settlement in the country’s north and south.

Netanyahu and Ben Gvir met on Wednesday in an attempt to solve the dispute. According to Channel 12, the atmosphere was not positive — Netanyahu told Ben Gvir that there was no way to redirect the funds to his priorities.

Netanyahu urged unity at a Thursday event attended by Smotrich and Ben Gvir at a Jerusalem yeshiva.

“We’re not going to have better government, a good, nationalist government that is concerned with the future of the people of Israel. The time has come to stop with the threats, stop the boycotts, get off your high horse,” Netanyahu said. “To work together and pass the budget for the good of the people and the settlements. For the good of the people of Israel and the Torah of Israel.”

Ben Gvir fired back, saying, “The judicial reform is not the high horse, and neither is evicting Khan al-Ahmar,” an illegal West Bank Bedouin encampment the right wing seeks to dismantle.

“This government needs to be a full right-wing government. A government that protects Jerusalem,” Ben Gvir said.

The Knesset is preparing to vote on the 2023-2024 overall budget, allocating NIS 484.8 billion this year and NIS 513.7 billion in 2024, up from NIS 452.5 billion in 2022.

As a backdrop to it all, the coalition is also struggling with how to move forward with its controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary, which supporters call a necessary corrective but critics decry as potentially the end to Israel’s liberal democracy.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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