Likud vows to oppose coalition’s scholarships bill for IDF combat veterans

Party says it will only back bill if it covers 100% of tuition for former soldiers, instead of proposed 67%, after some members had expressed support for the coalition legislation

Screen capture from video of opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and fellow Likud party member MK Yoav Gallant, May 19, 2022. (Twitter)
Screen capture from video of opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and fellow Likud party member MK Yoav Gallant, May 19, 2022. (Twitter)

The Likud party announced Thursday that the entire faction will vote against a coalition bill to fund tuition scholarships for newly released combat soldiers, after a group of Likud party members had initially expressed support for the legislation.

Likud said in a statement that 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.

Likud said in a statement that “all members of the Likud party” have signed a document pledging to only support the legislation if it covered 100% of expenses, and that Likud had negotiated with the coalition about increasing the funding.

“We stand united with IDF soldiers,” the statement said.

“Our combat soldiers give 100% and they deserve 100%,” it said. “Unfortunately, the coalition refused to increase the scholarships.”

“The Likud party will oppose all proposed bills by this dangerous government and will work with full strength to take down this government,” the party said.

Coalition leaders announced earlier Thursday that they planned to bring the scholarships legislation to a vote on Monday, daring opposition lawmakers to oppose the popular measure for former soldiers.

Likud’s announcement followed signs of dissent within the party against chairman and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to oppose the bill, amid fears that it would harm the faction politically, given the legislation’s popularity.

Veteran Knesset members Yoav Gallant and Miki Zohar had expressed their support for the initiative and urged their fellow faction members to join them in voting for it.

But the tides appeared to have turned after Meretz lawmaker Rinawie Zoabi announced her resignation from the coalition early Thursday, leaving the ruling bloc a minority in the Knesset, with 59 seats out of 120. Rinawie Zoabi surprise resignation sent shockwaves through Israel’s political arena and put Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition on the brink of collapse.

To demonstrate Likud’s unanimous opposition to the scholarships legislation, Netanyahu released a video statement announcing the decision with Gallant standing at his side.

“As a soldier who dedicated so much of your life for the country you know how important it is to give full support to combat soldiers,” Netanyahu said to Gallant, a former IDF general, in the video.

Increasing the scholarships to cover veterans’ entire tuition, instead of the coalition’s proposed two-thirds coverage, will cost an estimated additional NIS 50 million ($14.8 million).

Attacking Bennett his coalition, Likud pointed to the over NIS 50 billion ($14.8 billion) that the government has pledged to Arab Israeli communities, a priority for the coalition’s Islamist Ra’am party. The opposition has repeatedly attacked the coalition for including Ra’am, whose support it relies on, calling the government “terror supporters.”

Likud accused the coalition of playing politics with the legislation, calling it “disgraceful spin, being done on the backs of IDF soldiers.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, which is sponsoring the bill, responded in a statement saying “16,500 soldiers are waiting” for the bill to pass the Knesset.

“We call on all members of the Likud to wake up and not harm IDF soldiers who are waiting to receive the scholarship,” Blue and White said.

Gantz, in his own statement, called Likud’s decision “a serious blow” to the soldiers.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during a conference at Herzliya’s Reichman University, May 17, 2022. (Gilad Kvalarchik/Gilad Kvalarchik)

On Wednesday, Bennett, Gantz, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in a joint statement that they would bring the bill for a roll call on Monday.

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, implying that MKs would be publicly shamed if they voted against the bill.

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.

In response to the debate within Likud over whether to support the bill, Netanyahu called Gantz on Wednesday afternoon to open negotiations on passing the bill with Likud cooperation — provided that the coalition augment the bill to increase funding from two-thirds to 100 percent of the cost of tuition.

Likud has previously made this suggestion, and like in the past, it was not taken seriously by the coalition.

Illustrative image of infantry soldiers during an open field combat exercise, June 2011 (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Illustrative image of infantry soldiers during an open field combat exercise, June 2011 (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

While it is not apparently clear why pushing the level of funding to 100% would be a stumbling block, coalition sources reiterated that the program has always been for 67% tuition coverage.

Additionally, soldiers have an option to self-fund a portion of the remaining tuition from their military deposits, a special bank account that the military accrues on behalf of soldiers that can be immediately drawn upon after finishing the army for education.

The coalition has also been hampered by Ra’am’s reluctance to support the legislation, despite overwhelming public support for the measure.

Although the bill is only to fund educational stipends to former soldiers — including Arab soldiers — the fact that it touches upon the military is enough to make it uncomfortable for the Islamist Arab party.

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