Following rancorous debate, Knesset passes amended wartime budget

While Opposition Leader Lapid decries the most ‘sectoral, detached and profligate budget’ ever, Likud says legislation ‘guarantees the continuation of war until complete victory’

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ahmad Tibi argues with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir during a vote on the amended 2024 budget, March 13, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz, Office of the Knesset Spokesperson)
Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ahmad Tibi argues with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir during a vote on the amended 2024 budget, March 13, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz, Office of the Knesset Spokesperson)

The Knesset passed an amended wartime budget by 62 votes to 55 on Wednesday afternoon following two days of furious debate.

The budget’s approval was welcomed by members of the coalition, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party asserting that it “guarantees the continuation of the war until complete victory and benefits the citizens of Israel and the state’s economy.”

“The amended war budget approved today by the Knesset has clear goals: to win the war, support the military, strengthen the home front and continue to grow the Israeli economy. Together with God’s help until the complete victory,” tweeted Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

Under the revised budget bill, the government expenditure limit for 2024 will stand at NIS 584.1 billion ($160 billion), more than NIS 70 billion ($19 billion) higher than the original 2024 budget approved in May 2023, prior to the outbreak of war on October 7.

NIS 55 billion ($15 billion) of this additional 70 billion is allocated to financing the military, while the rest will go toward civilian wartime needs.

The budget, which pairs across-the-board cuts with additional spending on war-related matters, has generated widespread opposition — both within and outside Netanyahu’s coalition — with many complaining that it fails to trim extraneous spending and coalition-linked interests while cutting back on critical services.

Opposition Leader Yair lapid argues against the 2024 amended budget during a debate in the Knesset, March 13, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz, Office of the Knesset Spokesperson)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid panned the budget, alleging that it was the most “sectoral, detached and profligate budget in the history of the State of Israel” and pledging that it would be “the last budget this government will pass.”

“Any sane person would have woken up after the atrocities that took place in the country on October 7 and realized that it was time to change priorities,” tweeted Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman.

“But this government refuses to wake up. It is not enough that it abandoned Israel’s security; now it is also abandoning Israel’s economy.”

The coalition managed to overcome strong internal opposition to the budget, including by members of Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, as well as MK Amit Halevi and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, both members of Likud. Dichter said that he only voted in favor of the measure after receiving reassurances from Netanyahu that he would “resolve the crisis in the agriculture budget by Passover,” in late April.

Critics have panned the budget for its impact on Israeli farming, warning that a 20% budget cut planned for the Volcani Institute, Israel’s world-renowned agricultural research body, could potentially halt its activities.

Following the vote, opposition Labor MK Gilad Kariv demanded to see summaries of whatever budget-related agreements Netanyahu had reached with Dichter and Halevi — only to be rebuffed by the premier, who asserted that “there are no summaries.”

One of the most controversial parts of the budget was its allocation of billions of shekels in funding for ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, educational institutions that fail to teach the state-mandated core curriculum.

Illustrative: A Haredi school in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, August 27, 2014 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Despite this, Haredi lawmakers also criticized parts of the budget, with Labor and Welfare Committee chairman Yisrael Eichler objecting to its failure to expand funding of the government’s New Horizon program to their sector’s education systems.

There are “teachers in Haredi education who do the same job as any other teacher” but do not receive funding under the government’s Ofek Hadash (New Horizon) plan “just because they are Haredi,” Eichler complained during a debate on Tuesday.

Regardless, the Haredi parties, which are part of the coalition, supported the budget, with Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni calling on lawmakers to pass the budget.

Addressing the Knesset plenum ahead of the bill’s second and third readings, the Haredi lawmaker said that “despite all our reservations about the budget – I believe that it should be approved.”

A poll of 600 people carried out by the Smith Institute and published by Channel 12 Tuesday found a large majority of Jewish citizens opposed to the budget’s allocation of billions of shekels to the Haredi school system, including 67% of Likud voters. According to the poll, none of the Haredim polled expressed opposition to the budget.

The budget also came under fire from Arab lawmakers because it cuts about 15% of funding for a five-year plan intended to advance the social and economic integration of Arab Israelis.

“This is a budget that does not even pretend to deal… with the crime against Arab society and discrimination, with aid to the displaced people and evacuees of the north and south,” the Arab Hadash-Ta’al party said in a statement following its passage.

The budget is “disconnected from the needs of the public, and cuts [funding for] the Arabs, the disadvantaged and the middle class, and serves the settlements and the occupation. We will pay the prices of these cuts for many years, even in future generations.”

Lawmakers debate Israel’s 2024 amended budget in the Knesset plenum, March 13, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz, Office of the Knesset Spokesperson)

The Shin Bet and National Security Council reportedly warned earlier this year that such cuts could “intensify the risks of an outbreak of violence.”

2023 was the bloodiest ever year in the Arab community on record, with 244 Arab Israelis killed.

Urging lawmakers to vote against the budget during Wednesday’s debate, Lapid alleged that the proposed measure “tears the mask off all the government’s talk of unity.”

“You don’t want unity, you want to be paid. You don’t want to live together, you want to live at the expense of the public,” he said. “This is all that is left of your talk of unity… You are telling the productive and working public that unity means that you will pay: pay with your money, pay with your business, pay with your bills, pay with your life.”

In December, the Finance Ministry reportedly recommended closing 10 superfluous government ministries to cover the wartime budget shortfall of NIS 70 billion, but this has not been done.

Instead, on Sunday the cabinet voted to allocate NIS 25 million (roughly $7 million) for the establishment of a Jewish National Identity Authority headed by far-right MK Avi Maoz, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Knesset representative of the anti-LGBTQ Noam party.

The budget was passed with a number of supplemental measures, including one raising the health insurance premium rate from five percent to 5.165% and another increase in the tax on cigarettes and smoking products.

All opposition reservations to the legislation were voted down.

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