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Netanyahu said offering NIS 400m for ultra-Orthodox yeshivas amid election talk

TV news says move intended to smooth over Haredi objections to dissolving unity government and holding another round of voting; Prime Minister’s Office denies claim

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study in small groups at the Imrei Emes yeshiva of the Gur (Hasidic dynasty) in the city of Bnei Brak, June 16, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study in small groups at the Imrei Emes yeshiva of the Gur (Hasidic dynasty) in the city of Bnei Brak, June 16, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly offering to funnel hundreds of millions of shekels to yeshivas in order to reduce opposition by ultra-Orthodox parties to breaking up the unity government and calling elections.

The NIS 400 million ($117 million) would be passed on to the ultra-Orthodox establishments even though a national budget has not been approved by the government, Channel 12 news reported Tuesday. The sum would be in addition to money already being piped into the education system in preparation for the coming school year, the report said.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelbit objects to the plan, according to the report, though a statement on his behalf denied that he had been consulted or offered an opinion.

The report came amid talk indicating the short-lived unity government is nearing its end. Netanyahu’s Likud party is currently at loggerheads with its Blue and White partner over whether to pass a one-year budget covering just the rest of 2020, as Netanyahu insists, or the two-year budget pushed by Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and mandated in the coalition deal.

The two Orthodox parties, Shas, led by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, and United Torah Judaism, led by Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, are said to be pressuring Netanyahu to reach an agreement with Gantz and pass the budget — even threatening to ditch their longstanding support for Netanyahu if elections are called.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left and Alternate Prime Minister Defense Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/POOL/Flash90)

According to the Tuesday report, the money for the yeshivas is included in the budget, but Netanyahu is offering to see it handed over immediately without waiting for the budget to be approved.

In return, UJT and Shas will offer less resistance to calling elections, the report said.

A UJT source confirmed to the station that the cash was on the table but said it would not buy ultra-Orthodox support for elections.

“This NIS 400 million is first aid for the yeshivas that are craving a budget, the minimum that we can get by with,” the unnamed source said. “We will continue to oppose elections even if we get this money but it will make it ‘easier to swallow’ [elections] and prevent us from taking extreme measures to prevent elections.”

Opposition MK Avigdor Liberman, leader of the secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, wrote in response on Twitter, “The addition of NIS 400 million to the ultra-Orthodox parties at this time is not a budget for the yeshivas but surrender to Deri and Litzman and an election bribe.”

Yisrael Beytneu leader MK Avigdor Liberman during a faction meeting in Tel Aviv on June 7, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said “the report is incorrect, there is no connection between the issues. Netanyahu believes that everything must be done to prevent elections and to immediately pass the budget.”

Channel 12 said that ultra-Orthodox objections to elections are based on concerns that it would further delay the budget and with it money for the yeshivas.

Senior officials in both UTJ and Shas were quoted Tuesday by the Kan public broadcaster as saying that if Netanyahu refused to compromise on the state budget, they would refuse to publicly support the premier as they have done in recent elections. They also wouldn’t commit to backing Netanyahu as prime minister after the election, potentially denying him the necessary support of 61 lawmakers for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

The government has until August 25 to approve a budget. If one is not passed by then, the Knesset will automatically be dissolved and new elections will be called for November, in what would be the fourth round of voting in less than two years.

Blue and White’s leaders are said to believe Netanyahu is manufacturing the budget crisis in order to force elections and prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister in 2021 as stipulated by the coalition agreement.

Netanyahu denies he wants elections.

On Monday, Deri warned Likud and Blue and White to ease up on threats of breaking up the coalition.

“The Israeli people will not forgive us if we go to elections,” he said in an interview with Channel 12. “The people don’t understand [this dispute] and want us to work together.”

Shas party chairman and Interior Affairs Minister, Aryeh Deri, left, speaks with United Torah Judaism party leader, then health minister, Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In seeking to renege on his coalition deal with Gantz and pass a budget covering only the remainder of the current year, Netanyahu has been citing the uncertainty created by the coronavirus crisis, but many see it as a way for him to back out of the power-sharing arrangement he signed with Gantz, who is slated to take over the premiership late next year.

Netanyahu is widely believed to be doubling down on the single-year budget as a way of leaving himself the option of dissolving the government next year by failing to pass a 2021 budget — the only option that, according to his complex and convoluted deal with Gantz, who is also alternate prime minister, will allow him to send the country to a new election without Gantz automatically becoming prime minister in the interim.

The unity government, formed after three successive elections proved inconclusive and finally sworn in on May 17, has since been beset by wrangling and blocking maneuvers between the right-wing Likud and centrist Blue and White.

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