ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Cabinet approves NIS 60 million to upgrade Western Wall

Netanyahu vows state budget will pass, says coalition differences can be bridged

Pushing back against criticism over funding for Haredi schools that don’t teach core studies, PM claims he is leveling the playing field; Gantz: Ultra-Orthodox kids deserve better

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a cabinet meeting held in the Western Wall tunnels on May 21, 2023 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a cabinet meeting held in the Western Wall tunnels on May 21, 2023 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Sunday that the 2023-2024 state budget would pass, dismissing widespread reports of tensions within his coalition and declaring that the differences will be bridged.

“I have some experience; I have passed 20 budgets. Last-minute arguments always arise, and we will overcome them,” Netanyahu said.

During a special meeting of the cabinet held inside the Western Wall tunnels, to mark last week’s Jerusalem Day, Netanyahu also attacked the “incitement” of his political opponents.

The prime minister claimed that the budget was “reasonable” and would level the playing field between Haredi — or ultra-Orthodox — and secular children.

“A Haredi child should not receive less than a secular child. Because a Haredi child is not half a child,” Netanyahu said.

However, according to calculations published Saturday by The Marker financial newspaper, Haredi children already receive funding to the tune of 40 percent more than their secular counterparts, despite largely attending non-state-run schools.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Western Wall tunnels on May 21, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The report cited Education Ministry data showing that private Haredi educational institutions recognized by the state receive an average of NIS 15,500 per student, whereas similar secular institutions receive NIS 11,300 per student. Arab students in similar institutions are budgeted at NIS 8,000 per year.

National Unity leader Benny Gantz said in response that ultra-Orthodox students deserve the right to learn the core curriculum subjects. According to current coalition agreements, the government would cease requiring the teaching of core subjects such as math an English in exchange for funding.

“Netanyahu is right. A Haredi child should not receive less than a secular child. Along with Torah studies, Haredi students deserve to study core subjects as well — for the sake of their futures and ours,” Gantz said.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 15, 2023. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

In his opening comments at the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu also said that Jerusalem, and national security, were dependent on the government’s survival.

“We unified this city 56 years ago during the Six Day War, but the fight for its unity is not over,” Netanyahu said. “The work is not finished and the challenge is still ahead of us, because there are still people who want to divide it. For our security and for Jerusalem, we must continue to maintain this government.”

Shortly afterwards, the cabinet approved a budget of NIS 60 million to upgrade infrastructure and archaeological work at the Western Wall, as well as to encourage visitors and educational trips to the site.

The Knesset is preparing to vote on the 2023-2024 overall budget, allocating NIS 484.8 billion this year and NIS 513.7 billion in 2024, up from NIS 452.5 billion in 2022. Failure to pass the state budget by May 29 would trigger the automatic dissolution of the government and snap elections.

However, Netanyahu is facing challenges from within his coalition.

Far-right National Security Minister Ben Gvir has ordered his Otzma Yehudit lawmakers to boycott Knesset votes in a bid to pressure allied parties to divert more funds to his party’s priorities in the budget.

Meanwhile, United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf has threatened to stymie the budget’s passage unless his demands for an additional NIS 600 million ($164 million) are met.

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman at the Knesset on May 18, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Former finance minister Avigdor Liberman said Sunday that he believed Goldknopf and Ben Gvir would be “given money through a back door” to defuse their threats not to vote for the budget.

“They will find sources and give them the money,” Liberman said. “I [when serving as finance minister] prepared a budget that was for the benefit of the citizens of Israel, whereas this is a budget for the benefit of the relevant sectors. This is the most partisan budget since the establishment of the state.”

Liberman also launched a scathing attack on the budget, saying that Netanyahu should “suffer in hell” for the massive subsidies set to be provided to Haredi educational institutions without requiring them to teach core curriculum studies.

“What Netanyahu did, and for that he deserves to suffer in hell every day, is he took those people and said: ‘I will give you the same funds without the need to study core studies. I want you to remain in poverty, without education, and you will suffer,’” Liberman said.

“The fact that Netanyahu has prevented Israeli children from studying core studies is intolerable, unacceptable and unforgivable,” Liberman said.

Out of NIS 13.7 ($3.8) billion in discretionary funds approved by the government on May 14, about NIS 3.7 billion is promised to be spent on increasing the budget for stipends at Haredi yeshiva student institutions, despite criticism that the community’s schools skirt full Education Ministry oversight and fail to teach core subjects to prepare students for the workforce, including math, science and English.

Another NIS 1.2 billion is budgeted for private, non-supervised educational institutions, which also do not teach core subjects such as math and English.

About NIS 1 billion is directed as an allowance for a food voucher program being pushed by Shas party leader Aryeh Deri. Additional funds will be funneled for ultra-Orthodox education, constructing religious buildings, and supporting Haredi Jewish culture and identity.

Citing promises made as part of the coalition deal with Netanyahu’s Likud, the Agudat Yisrael faction of UTJ, led by party leader Goldknopf, has for days been threatening to pull out of the coalition and vote down the budget if it does not receive the demanded funds for full-time religious scholars.

File: Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf attends a conference in Tel Aviv on March 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Unnamed senior coalition members were quoted as saying that revisiting the budget at this stage, after the lengthy process of approving it in the Knesset’s Finance Committee, would be “madness.”

Agudat Yisrael has three lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset, meaning the 64-strong coalition can pass the budget without their votes. However, the faction has urged the party which makes up UTJ — Degel HaTorah led by Moshe Gafni — to join its demand by withholding its four votes.

Moreover, several reports said Goldknopf was threatening to resign as housing and construction minister, allowing him to return to the Knesset as a fourth member of the Agudat Yisrael under the so-called Norwegian law, to vote against the budget. A Thursday report said Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush, also of the Agudat Yisrael faction, had threatened to do the same.

On Saturday, some 150,000 anti-government protesters rallied around the country, including against the priorities of the looming state budget. Protest organizers said they would hold a demonstration near the Knesset on Tuesday during the discussion on approving the budget.

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