Ministers clash over allocation of Netanyahu’s NIS 6 billion virus handouts

Likud ministers reportedly propose vouchers instead of cash, payments only to those on income support; PM urges fast decision to help those in need

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at start of the weekly cabinet meeting, July 19, 2020 (GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at start of the weekly cabinet meeting, July 19, 2020 (GPO)

Ministers at Sunday’s cabinet meeting clashed over controversial handouts to Israelis to help cope with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a ministerial team will examine the allocation of some NIS 6 billion ($1.75 billion) in funds. The meeting continued deep into Sunday afternoon.

The proposal has been roundly criticized by Finance Ministry officials, the premier’s coalition partners and the public. The criticism has mostly centered on 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 — and its high cost.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Likud’s Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel proposed at the meeting that vouchers be given instead of cash transfers, while Higher Education Minister Ze’ev Elkin said that grants should only be given to those who receive income benefits.

Additionally, ministers from the Blue and White party reportedly said that changes should be made so that more money only goes to those who really need it.

The new Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel is seen with her predecessor Zeev Elkin at at the Ministry of Environmental Protection in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli (Labor) said that the money should definitely be distributed, but in a different manner.

“The question is not whether we should give money to the public — we should give even more — but rather to whom it should go,” he said, according to Army Radio. “A distribution mechanism that gives everyone the same, gives too little to those who need while those who don’t need get too much. There are billions here that must be divided differently, in a just and economically sensible way.”

At the opening of the meeting, Netanyahu confirmed that the allocation of grants would be examined.

“Today, we will be submitting to the cabinet a series of appointments, as well as a framework decision approving grants to the citizens of Israel in order to spur the economy and also help create employment,” he said. “We are talking about a NIS 6 billion framework. We will appoint a ministerial team that will approve the method of allocation.”

There were no details given on the makeup of the panel of ministers that would be charged with the task.

Muslim women wear face masks to help protect themselves from the coronavirus, walk past a poster hung by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the district court in Jerusalem, July 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Netanyahu said that decisions on the matter needed to be made quickly to help those in need.

“The most important emphasis is on speed, with both the system and the decisions; therefore, this discussion that we want to hold needs to happen in the next 24 hours, if not today, then tomorrow, but no later, so that we can implement it as quickly as possible,” he said.

Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, the two main coalition parties, agreed on Saturday night to raise the plan for a cabinet vote and then set up the special ministerial panel that will decide how the funds are dispensed.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The plan, as outlined by Netanyahu last week, would see couples with one child receive a one-time payment of NIS 2,000 ($583), which rises to NIS 2,500 ($729) for those with two children, and NIS 3,000 ($875) for those with three or more. Single Israelis aged 18 and over would each receive NIS 750 ($218).

TV reports said the proposal would likely require a full Knesset vote and could therefore take a week to be implemented.

The plan was initially left off the agenda for Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, which was released on Friday. By Saturday, though, it was on the schedule for a ministerial vote.

Unemployment in Israel on Sunday morning stood at 21.1 percent — or 855,380 people — as restrictions imposed amid record daily coronavirus infections further batter the economy.

Israelis protest against the government’s latest coronavirus restrictions in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Thousands of people took part Saturday evening in anti-government protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with the former focusing on the government’s economic policies amid the resurgent coronavirus pandemic, and the latter calling on Netanyahu to resign over his corruption trial.

Amid the ongoing rise in national infection rates, the latest coronavirus regulations severely limited public gatherings until further notice, ordered the closure of restaurants for in-house seating for the foreseeable future (though that move has been delayed to Tuesday after massive backlash by restaurateurs) and ordered multiple closures on weekends going forward, including of beaches, parks and other recreational activities.

The death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 406 on Sunday.

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