Hours before Knesset vote, fate of coalition’s IDF veterans scholarship bill unclear

Some opposition leaders said to tell Netanyahu they’ll vote with his Likud party; Netanyahu says disputed funding should come from cash promised to Arab towns

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left,  Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attend a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attend a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

The coalition on Monday was set to bring its bill to fund academic tuition for newly released combat soldiers for a Knesset vote, though it remained unclear whether the legislation had the necessary backing to pass or would be defeated in another embarrassing sign of the government’s hobbled position.

Though most lawmakers back the bill in principle, the opposition-leading Likud party has said it would only lend its support — which the coalition would need to pass the bill — if the measure is amended to cover 100 percent of discharged troops’ tuition, rather than the proposed two-thirds.

Two-thirds, however, has been the funding rate since the scholarship program began in 2016. Coalition sources say that it intentionally leaves space for student self-funding, in order to create a sense of obligation for recipients to finish school.

The Likud leadership, in addition to its calls for full funding, also came out against supporting the bill in order to embarrass the coalition.

The coalition currently only has 60 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, and four of those are held by Ra’am, an Islamist party that has hesitated to lend its support to a bill that benefits soldiers and whose position on supporting Monday’s bill is still unknown. Thus, if Likud and the rest of the opposition unite against the bill it is unlikely to pass.

Despite ideologically supporting the measure, Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu has argued that more important than advancing any specific measure is showing that the government, which is struggling to maintain even parity with the opposition, is unable to pass legislation.

The bill is being sponsored by Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party.

Some opposition party leaders and senior figures informed Netanyahu that they will follow Likud’s lead on the bill, including if it chooses to back the legislation, the Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday.

But last week, party leaders in the opposition bloc reportedly urged Netanyahu to oppose the bill and not give in to pressure from the coalition to support it. The leaders had called for maintaining their united opposition to all government legislation in an effort to bring it down and were said to have threatened that if Likud makes an exception for the scholarships, then they may do the same for bills of partisan interest to their own voters.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With the issue of welfare and benefits for IDF soldiers and veterans a touchstone for many segments of Israeli society, even within Likud, there are those who have called for making an exception in the case of the scholarship bill.

However, Likud hardened its stance against the bill after last week MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, a member of the coalition Meretz party, announced her resignation from the government in protest over what she said was its rightward lurching under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Her move Thursday put the government into a minority and was followed by intense negotiations to bring her back into the fold. On Sunday Rinawie Zoabi said she was reversing course and rejoining the coalition, following pressure and in exchange for an apparent promise that the government will release hundreds of millions of shekels in funds earmarked for Arab towns.

On Sunday ,Netanyahu reiterated that his party will not back the scholarship stipends unless the bill is changed to provide 100% of funding. He attacked the government, accusing it of buying support from Arab legislators at the expense of the soldiers’ scholarships.

“Bennett and [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid are prepared to do everything to remain in power,” Netanyahu said in a video published on his Facebook page. “To that end, they are paying huge sums of your money, the taxpayers, to those who hate Israel and to terror supporters because their government is dependent on them.”

He noted that the government promised NIS 50 billion for Arab society to MK Mansour Abbas in order to bring his Islamist Ra’am party into the coalition that enabled the government. Last week Kan reported that Lapid was in negotiations with opposition MK Ahmad Tibi, who heads the two-MK Ta’al faction within the Joint List, for his cooperation with the coalition in the Knesset. Tibi has asked for NIS 200 million ($60 million) to finance infrastructure projects in the Arab community, the report said.

“You know what they don’t have money for? Our proposal to increase the scholarships of soldiers to 100%. All in all, it is an additional NIS 50 million ($15 million) — that is Bennett’s home in Ra’anana,” Netanyahu said, referring to controversial refurbishment work at the prime minister’s private home, which Bennett has chosen to continue to use instead of moving to the official prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

“For that, they don’t have money, for that they suddenly need Likud,” he said.

Netanyahu added, “They should reach into Zoabi’s pocket, and Tibi’s pocket, and Abbas’s pocket, and give 100% to our fighters because they deserve 100%.”

Netanyahu vowed to establish a replacement government and promised that its first order of business would be to ensure the scholarships are for 100% of tuition.

Bennett’s Yamina party responded by accusing Netanyahu of spreading “lies” about the funding promised to the Arab community.

“The reason Bibi screamed hysterically in the video is to cover up his lies,” the party said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Yamina said that “no new funds” had been promised to MK Zoabi and that talks had focused on “opening barriers to existing budgets” for plans that were already approved within the state budget and related to education infrastructure, employment, and other areas, as part of a drive to close the gaps between Jewish and Arab society that was already approved by the previous government.

“So it was in the previous government and so it is in the current government as is fitting,” Yamina said and highlighted the unlikely opposition alliance of Netanyahu’s Likud and the extreme right-wing Otzma Yehudit party with the mostly Arab Joint List, which also planned to block the stipends bill.

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi is seen after an interview with Channel 12 news, at the network’s studio in Neve Ilan, on May 19, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

At the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Bennett hit out at Netanyahu’s Likud party for vowing to oppose the bill.

“If the Likud Knesset members vote against, the law will fall and the soldiers won’t get scholarships. Many of them will not be able to afford studies at all while others, who already began their studies relying on this money, will simply be stuck without a solution,” he said.

He called on Likud MKs and other opposition members to either back the law or stay away from the plenum during the vote, allowing the bill to pass.

Last week Bennett, Lapid, and Gantz said in a joint statement that they would bring the bill for a roll call. In a roll call vote, the Knesset roster is read out loud and each Knesset member votes by voice.

“All discharged fighters and their families will be able to watch Likud MKs on live broadcast,” the coalition’s statement said at the time, implying that MKs would be publicly shamed if they voted against the bill.

In the meantime, recent veterans are caught in the political crossfire.

“Already a week we’ve been here, trying to negotiate between coalition and opposition members,” said Idan Siboni, one of the scholarship’s intended beneficiaries and an organizer of a protest outside the Knesset on Monday morning.

Siboni added that the core team plans to meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at 3 p.m. today, before the Knesset plenum opens an hour later.

According to a figure shared last week by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Siboni joins about 16,500 veterans who paid for this year’s academic studies in expectation of being partially reimbursed by the scholarship program.

In order to close the financial gap while the funds await release, Siboni said, “I’m working like a donkey.”

The broadly popular tuition scholarship program, called “MeMadim LeLimudim,” or “From Uniforms to Studies,” provides a two-thirds tuition scholarship for former combat troops, and other designated 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 non-combat soldiers covered by the bill are troops from economically disadvantaged homes, Druze and Arab soldiers, “lone soldiers” who serve without immediate family in Israel, and new immigrants.

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.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed reporting.

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