Coronavirus stimulus plan finally okayed

Knesset approves amended version of Netanyahu’s NIS 6.5b handouts plan

Some eligible Israelis could receive cash as soon as Sunday; high wage earners excluded while some needier Israelis, bigger families, allocated larger sums

The Knesset plenum during a vote on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coronavirus stimulus package on July 29, 2020. (Screenshot)
The Knesset plenum during a vote on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coronavirus stimulus package on July 29, 2020. (Screenshot)

The Knesset unanimously approved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s multi-billion-shekel coronavirus stimulus plan on Wednesday, paving the way for millions of Israelis to begin receiving cash grants as soon as the beginning of next week.

In a 68-0 vote on the Knesset floor, lawmakers approved the aid package, which will disburse more than NIS 6.5 billion ($1.9 billion) to eligible citizens in the wake of the economic slump caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most Israelis will be eligible, but the original plan for handouts for all has been amended to exclude high-earners and to provide larger payments than originally envisaged for some of those most in need and large families.

Netanyahu welcomed the measure’s passage, saying that Israelis would “have the money early next week,” to help “propel the wheels of our economy.”

“There will be more” such steps in the future, he promised.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussing his government’s coronavirus stimulus package in a video posted to YouTube, July 29, 2020. (Screenshot)

The National Insurance Institute stated on Wednesday that people with children would begin receiving their grants on Sunday but did not specify when it would begin payouts for everyone else.

The measure was approved after undergoing several revisions since first being unveiled by Netanyahu on July 15, when he said it was vital to get the money out quickly in order to get the wheels of the economy moving again.

Under the original plan, all Israelis aged 18 and over were to receive a one-time payment of NIS 750 ($218). Couples with one child were to receive NIS 2,000 ($583), rising to NIS 2,500 ($729) for those with two children, and NIS 3,000 ($875) for those with three or more.

But criticism of the plan’s call to disburse money to all Israelis — regardless of income or whether they were hurt economically by the government-mandated restrictions to contain the virus — prompted Netanyahu to announce last Monday that high earners would not receive the handouts while people receiving certain government benefits would get more.

Senior officials in the treasury, including director Keren Terner Eyal, opposed the plan ahead of its unveiling, likening it to “throwing suitcases of money that we don’t have into the sea,” according to Channel 13.

On Tuesday, following political pressure from the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, Finance Minister Israel Katz agreed to increase the stimulus checks for large families.

Self-employed Israelis protest at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, calling for financial support from the Israeli government on July 11, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Under the revised plan passed on Wednesday, families will receive NIS 500 ($146) for each of their first four kids, with another NIS 300 ($87) from the fifth child onward.

The Finance Ministry also agreed to increase the payouts for newly released IDF soldiers, raising the sum from NIS 750 ($219) to NIS 1,250 ($365) for those discharged in the past year.

The changes came after negotiations between the treasury and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, who oversees the Knesset’s Finance Committee and threatened to block the entire aid plan if no changes were made. A similar demand was made last week by MK Ahmad Tibi of the predominantly-Arab Joint List party.

Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Orthodox and Arab communities have significantly higher birthrates than other Israelis, meaning the amendment primarily benefits them.

Increasing numbers of Israelis have reported feeling anxiety and concerns over their ability to pay their bills during the resurgent coronavirus outbreak, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported on Sunday, releasing the results of a poll measuring what it called “civil resilience.”

The poll found that 55 percent of Israelis were concerned over their ability to cover monthly expenses during the economic downturn and that more than a fifth had either reduced their food intake during the crisis to save money or lived with someone who had.

On July 11, thousands of Israelis gathered at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square for a demonstration against the government’s handling of the economic crisis, and what they said was insufficient aid offered to small business owners and professionals in the hard-hit entertainment and hospitality industries.

The next day, the cabinet approved stipends of up to NIS 7,500 ($2,170) for self-employed Israelis, salaried employees, and business owners who have been hurt economically by the coronavirus and the government’s measures to contain it.

However, many of those eligible for the stipends responded with outrage after discovering that the amount that finally reached them was far less than they had been led to believe, amounting to less than NIS 2,000 ($580).

The Israeli Employment Service says the country’s unemployment rate is currently over 20%.

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