Finance minister agrees to release funds to Arab towns, under oversight mechanism

Smotrich says system is needed to prevent money from being funneled to criminal elements amid deadly violence; Kafr Qasim mayor says he left five-hour meeting newly optimistic

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem on August 9, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem on August 9, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In a meeting Sunday evening with local Arab leaders and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich agreed to release funds earmarked for Arab municipalities that he had recently frozen over ostensible concerns they would reach criminal elements.

Smotrich said the funds, totaling NIS 200 million ($53 million), would be transferred to the Interior Ministry in the coming weeks, while he would seek to establish a mechanism for greater oversight of the money’s use.

He set a two-week timeline for the government to develop protocols to block the flow of funds to criminal organizations. Once implemented, he said, the Interior Ministry can release monies to Arab municipalities.

“I’m happy that we have full cooperation” on the oversight mechanism, Smotrich told Army Radio on Monday morning, adding that it would apply to all funding, from all ministries, for Arab municipalities.

Kafr Qasim Mayor Adel Badir, who attended the meeting, said it was held at the Shin Bet headquarters, that it lasted for five hours, that Bar was present throughout, and that by the end all sides were in agreement.

Badir told Army Radio it had been agreed that the oversight mechanism on funding would apply to all local authorities, Arab and Jewish alike, and that he left the meeting newly optimistic.

Kafr Qasim Mayor Adel Badir (Walla screenshot. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

In a statement, Smotrich’s office said that the coalition would also advance a legislative package that would grant criminal and economic enforcement powers against organized crime. The finance minister’s bureau said this was in line with a directive from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Additionally, the Finance Ministry, Smotrich’s office said, would increase funds to the Israel Police by “tens of millions of shekels” in order to boost technology required for better enforcement and personal security in Arab society.

The meeting was also attended by Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel. Police and the Shin Bet agreed to cooperate with the other authorities to prevent funds from being misused.

Members of the Arab community holding hundreds of symbolic coffins as they protest against the violence in their community, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on August 6, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The finance and interior ministries said they would advance funds and measures to tackle organized crime in the Arab community, which has been blamed for skyrocketing murder rates among Arabs.

The meeting also focused on the threat to candidates in upcoming municipal elections from organized crime groups, amid the violent crime wave.

Last week, Kan news reported that there were 15-20 Arab-majority municipalities where candidates and incumbents were being threatened by criminal organizations. Elections are set for October 31.

Ronen Bar, head of the Shin Bet security service, at a memorial service marking 27 years since the assassination of late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, held at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Sunday saw one candidate for the mayoralty of Kafr Yasif in northern Israel withdraw from the race, citing recent murders and a recent incident of shots being fired toward his home.

“This is an utter failure of the state,” said Hilal Khouri. “I wanted to bring about change, but that’s not on the table so I’ve decided to bow out.”

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was not invited to Smotrich’s meeting with the Arab leaders, officials involved in the matter told the Walla news site. According to the report, Ben Gvir was opposed to holding such a meeting.

Ben Gvir campaigned on promises to beef up public safety and heads the ministry that oversees the police, but has been unable to stem the soaring crime wave.

He was widely panned last week for saying the “bigger threat” of the crime wave was that it could spill over into Jewish communities.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at an Israel Police event in Jerusalem on August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leaders have called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire the minister, who they say is not suited for the job.

Earlier in the day, Smotrich was reported to have engaged in a shouting match with Education Minister Yoav Kisch at the weekly cabinet conference, with the latter accusing him of “crushing Arab society” by denying them the funds.

The finance minister retorted that Kisch was “talking nonsense” and lacking understanding of the details.

Interjecting, Netanyahu said there was “urgency that cannot be ignored” in transferring the funds, though he also adopted Smotrich’s call for oversight. “Bring us a proposal and we’ll carry it out,” he said.

One new plan presented to the cabinet recently would seek to ensure funds for Arab municipalities do not end up in the pockets of criminal organizations. The new “traffic light” system would rank Arab municipalities according to their risk level of infiltration by organized crime. Put forth by Smotrich and Social Equality Minister Amichai Chikli, the plan, which was discussed at a cabinet meeting last week, is reportedly backed by Netanyahu.

Smotrich’s previous decision to withhold the money was met with strong criticism by the opposition and even by members of the ruling coalition, including Arbel.

Police guard at the scene where family members were injured after a gunman opened fire in the Arab Town of Kafr Kanna, northern Israel, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Flash90)

Following the backlash, Netanyahu’s office announced on August 9 that unspecified monitoring mechanisms would be put in place before the funding would be released. More recently, Smotrich held a series of meetings with leaders of Arab local authorities and the Shin Bet to discuss options to ensure the funds are not misappropriated.

According to the latest proposal put forward by Smotrich and Chikli, Arab municipalities will be ranked in a three-tier system: “Green” ones would receive funding with no conditions, “yellow” ones would receive funding with supervision, and “red ones” would see their funds frozen pending a solution that will ensure that the funds will not end up in the hands of criminal organizations. The ranking will be decided by the Interior Ministry, the police and the Shin Bet, according to public broadcaster Kan.

The details of the oversight system are still under discussion, a spokesperson for Smotrich told The Times of Israel.

With local elections coming up in two months, some experts have warned of the risk of criminal elements threatening and blackmailing local officials to obtain favors, and occasionally resorting to violence.

Since the beginning of the year, 157 members of the Arab community have been killed by violence, according to the anti-violence Abraham Initiatives watchdog group, much of it attributed to warring crime organizations. The figure is over twice as high as for the same period in 2022.

Recent killings included a shocking quadruple homicide Tuesday evening in the northern town of Abu Snan. One of the victims, Ghazi Sa’ab, was running for mayor in the upcoming municipal elections and had announced the launch of his campaign only hours prior to his death. The fatal attack came a day after the killing of Tira’s municipal director, Abdul Rahman Kashua.

Most Popular
read more: