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Millions in funds for Arab community approved in Knesset Finance Committee

The funds had been budgeted as part of the government’s 5-year plan, but were held up in various ministries, right-wing MK Smotrich calls allocation ‘irresponsible’

Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas (right) speaks with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center) and Ra'am MK Walid Taha during a plenum session in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas (right) speaks with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center) and Ra'am MK Walid Taha during a plenum session in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset Finance Committee authorized the transfer of NIS 740 million ($220 million) in pre-approved funding for the Arab community on Tuesday.

The authorization came following an agreement made two weeks ago between the coalition and its Islamist Ra’am faction to move the process forward, as Ra’am returned to the coalition after freezing cooperation with the government for three weeks.

The funds, which had been promised to Ra’am before its temporary boycott from the coalition last month, had been slowed due to bureaucracy and other priorities within government ministries, including reluctance from the coalition’s right-wing, which feared the money would fall into the hands of criminal elements, Channel 12 news reported.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said, however, that the funding had only been distributed as a routine matter from the government’s pre-existing five-year plan for the community.

The office of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid directed the removal of bureaucratic barriers for the funds with the return of Ra’am to the coalition. Ra’am froze its involvement in the coalition in April as pressure mounted on it over the ongoing tensions and violence between police and Palestinians at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount during Ramadan.

Ra’am on Tuesday announced the approval of the funds, which include NIS 400 million ($119 million) from the Housing Ministry to be transferred to improve infrastructure, planning and construction in the Arab community; NIS 200 million ($60 million) from the Interior Ministry to regional Arab authorities; NIS 90 million ($27 million) from the Welfare and Social Services Ministry toward programs combating poverty and violence in Arab communities; and NIS 50 million ($15 million) from the Science Ministry and Social Equality Ministry for the development of research and science programs and support for youth.

The party also announced that the committee approved an additional NIS 75 million ($22 million) on Monday to speed up planning and construction in Arab communities.

Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich attends a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/flash90)

Opposition MK Bezalel Smotrich from the far-right Religious Zionism party assailed the government for approving the transfer of funds, stating that it was evading recommendations by the Knesset’s Homeland Security Committee to prevent the funds from ending up in the hands of “criminal and terror groups.”

The opposition has consistently attacked the coalition for its inclusion of Ra’am, claiming the Arab party’s participation in government undermines Israeli security.

Smotrich accused the government of “budgeting for crime and terrorism with lots and lots of money.”

“The consequences will be severe for Israeli and Arab citizens of Israel, it is a crime and irresponsible. Stop it,” Smotrich said.

A Finance Ministry representative responded to Smotrich, clarifying that the security committee recommendations were relevant for development budgets that go through government tenders, but that the funds being transferred were for use by regional authorities, where tenders are less relevant.

Shaked said that in 2015, under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, funds were also distributed directly to authorities in charge of programs in Arab communities without special mechanisms in place.

Shaked said that, unlike the Netanyahu government’s disbursement of the funds, the current coalition appointed a special team to monitor the initiative headed by the Interior Ministry and including police and other government bodies.

The authorities had set up mechanisms to monitor the disbursement and police approve contractors who are eligible for funding, she said.

Ra’am MK Iman Khatib-Yassin complained that discussions like the one surrounding the funding always  “automatically attribute crime and terror to the economy in the Arab sector,” and called for a more professional debate on the matter in the future.

“The Arab authorities are the legitimate address to manage the matters of the Arab community. We request, on the other hand, that the authorities who believe in this take care of criminal elements, not at the expense of the independence, management and economy of the Arab sector.”

Earlier, Kan radio reported that NIS 25 million ($7.46 million) would be allocated to fund hospitals in Nazareth in order to appease renegade Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, who briefly resigned from the government last Thursday before returning to the fold days later.

The coalition has been teetering since Idit Silman, from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, jumped ship earlier this month, reducing the government to a 60-60 parity with the opposition in the Knesset.

The coalition is an unwieldy amalgam of right-wing, centrist and leftist parties, and includes the Islamist Ra’am, and has struggled to find a balance between the different groups since coming into power last year, especially in recent months.

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