ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Knesset okays NIS 149 million for Rabbinate salaries, renovations of rabbis’ tombs

Opposition MKs on Finance Committee accuse panel of approving funds for ‘needs that do not really exist’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Jewish believers attend a celebration in honor of the Jewish sage Baba Sali, at his tomb complex in the southern city of Netivot, January 26, 2023. (Flash 90)
Jewish believers attend a celebration in honor of the Jewish sage Baba Sali, at his tomb complex in the southern city of Netivot, January 26, 2023. (Flash 90)

Lawmakers on Tuesday approved the transfer of NIS 149 million ($39 million) to the Religious Services Ministry for the benefit of the Chief Rabbinate and renovating the tombs of Jewish sages, following a nearly half-billion shekel budget reallocation last week for ultra-Orthodox education and religious organizations.

A spokesperson for the Knesset Finance Committee, which okayed the transfers, said that although the funds were budgeted to different ministries, they were padded into the state budget with the understanding that the Religious Services Ministry could pull them for future use, like a “line of credit.”

Some NIS 61 million of the funds were pulled from a budget section relating to pensions and workman’s compensation claims, while NIS 88 million fell under a different clause, which marked them for the Religious Service Ministry’s potential usage, according to the committee spokesperson.

The funds are earmarked for paying the salaries of Chief Rabbinate employees, rabbinic court operations, bulwarking the tomb of Jewish sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on the Mount Meron pilgrimage site, renovating ritual baths (mikvehs) in Beit Shemesh, preparing for celebrations at Baba Sali’s tomb in Netivot, renovating other sages’ graves, and “establishing religious institutions,” according to Finance Committee chair MK Moshe Gafni’s office.

Several of those goals fulfill coalition promises made by the ruling Likud party to its religious coalition partners, in order to form a government in December.

Opposition lawmakers on the Finance Committee decried the process as lacking transparency, given the ambiguity surrounding about the ultimate need for and use of the funds.

MK Moshe Gafni leads a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yesh Atid MK Vladimir Beliak, who coordinates the eight opposition MKs on the 17-member panel, charged that NIS 61 million of the funds was being transferred “for needs that don’t really exist for the Religious Services Ministry.”

“Why don’t they really exist? Because we asked for explanations in the committee, and we didn’t receive them,” Beliak told the Knesset plenum, shortly after the committee’s coalition members pressed the vote through.

Labor lawmaker Naama Lazimi linked the vote to other instances of lawmakers being made to vote on budget transfers without getting the full picture of the sources and uses of the funds.

“Time and time again we don’t get answers regarding which sources and from where [funds originate]. Last week it was also a transfer that cost an across-the-board cut. Budget surpluses are something that can be used for other purposes in the ministry; surpluses can be used to expand social services,” she said.

The transfer follows a NIS 476 million transfer last week involving a cross-the-board budget cut in order to funnel money for “the benefit of Haredi education, yeshiva students, and Religious Zionist foundations,” Beliak said.

MKs Vladimir Beliak, left, and Moshe Tur-Paz at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting in Jerusalem, February 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Committee chair Gafni hailed that transfer as being in line with promises made to the ultra-Orthodox parties, as part of their coalition deals to form the current government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

In addition to committee activity, the Knesset also hosted a special plenum session on Tuesday, its second since recessing in late July.

The session was primarily called to answer an opposition request for floor debate on the government’s judicial overhaul, as well as rampant violent crime in Arab communities.

While the legislative floor is open, the coalition plans to advance three government-backed bills. One, which is scheduled to pass into law on Tuesday, would extend current prisoner parole guidelines past their expiration date, slated for October 15.

An additional bill on the handling of medical gases passed its first reading on Tuesday. A third bill, to streamline procedures for issuing biometric documents, such as passports, also cleared its first reading.

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