NIS 29 billion wartime budget boost passes, amid outcry over funds for non-war needs

Infusion to cover war-related costs, but passage opens door for hundreds of millions in political earmarks; Gantz’s National Unity votes no; 2 Likud lawmakers refuse to back move

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, alongside Justice Minister Yariv Levin, votes yes on the supplementary budget for 2023 to cover the costs of war with Hamas and Hezbollah, December 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, alongside Justice Minister Yariv Levin, votes yes on the supplementary budget for 2023 to cover the costs of war with Hamas and Hezbollah, December 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The supplementary budget for 2023 to cover the costs of the ongoing fighting with Hamas and Hezbollah was passed Thursday afternoon, in the face of opposition from parties on both sides of the aisle to some funding allocated to projects not connected to the war effort.

The budget was passed 59-45, with Benny Gantz’s National Unity party, a coalition partner, not voting in favor, along with Likud MK Yuli Edelstein who abstained because of the non-war related discretionary funds.

Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, also of the ruling party, absented herself from the vote.

The budget includes some NIS 28.9 billion ($7.85 billion) to cover the costs of the war in Gaza and the fighting on the border with Lebanon, including increased military expenditure and civilian expenses such as accommodation for evacuees from the north and south.

But controversially, the budget also included hundreds of millions of shekels in so-called “coalition funds,” which are discretionary funds earmarked for pet projects of MKs and ministers, which professionals in the Finance Ministry said should be halved.

Gantz had publicly urged Netanyahu to remove these funds from the budget but was ignored, leading his faction to oppose the budget, while Opposition Leader Yair Lapid denounced the funding as contributing toward the rising budget deficit.

Minister Benny Gantz votes no on clauses of the supplementary budget for 2023, December 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Indeed, a separate bill allowing the government to further increase the deficit to 3.7% of the budget was approved in its final readings in order to help finance the costs of the supplemental budget.

Although National Unity MKs voted against or were absent from voting on each of the specific budget clauses, they were not present for the final vote after Yesh Atid surprised the plenum and withdrew reservations it had submitted, leaving the National Unity members stranded outside the hall.

Their votes against the budget were, however, recorded in the protocol.

Edelstein abstained in the final vote, after earlier having supported a National Unity reservation which would have diverted coalition funds designated for the Education Ministry toward the new Tekuma Administration, a fund established to rebuild communities in the Western Negev region devastated by the Hamas invasion of October 7.

That reservation was rejected, leading Edelstein to post on X “[If the money is] not for the war – not now,” and subsequently abstain on the final vote.

The supplemental budget adds an extra NIS 25.9 billion to the original 2023 budget, raising it to NIS 510.6 billion, before debt servicing costs. Another NIS 3 billion will be diverted from existing funds.

Some NIS 17 billion of the NIS 28.9 billion funds for the war will go toward security costs such as arms procurement and payments for IDF reservists, while NIS 12 billion will finance home front expenses.

Approximately NIS 6.1 billion will cover the cost of housing evacuees from northern and southern Israel, financial assistance for those injured during the war, schooling arrangements for evacuees and employment incentives.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid denounces the supplementary budget for 2023 during a debate in the Knesset plenum, December 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

NIS 1.8 billion will be used to bolster civilian security arrangements inside Israel, including additional funds for the police, prison service, fire service, civilian security squads, emergency equipment for local authorities, and bomb shelters.

Another NIS 1.8 billion will be used for boosting the economy, including assistance for agricultural needs, child day care, compensation for cultural institutions, and a “security cushion” for shipping and aviation.

A further one billion will go to bolstering the health system including mental health services, purchasing medicine, and fortifying hospitals against rocket and missile attacks.

The total budget will be NIS 636.6 billion when including debt servicing costs.

Some of the most controversial coalition funds which were kept in the budget are over NIS 300 million for the Settlements and National Projects Ministry headed by ultranationalist firebrand Orit Strock of the Religious Zionism party.

Another controversial budget item was the diversion of sizable funds to the ultra-Orthodox education system.

In a fiery speech from the Knesset podium, Lapid blasted these funds for tainting the wartime budget with political funds for the electorates of coalition parties, declaring that those voting in favor “will not be forgiven” and that their children would be “ashamed” of them.

Settlements and National Projects Minister Orit Strock speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during voting on the supplementary budget for 2023 to cover the costs of war with Hamas and Hezbollah, December 14 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We are a country in which everything has changed. This is not the same country, and it won’t be [the same]. Not after [the] Shejaiya [ambush in Gaza], not after [the Hamas massacre at the] Nova [music festival]. There isn’t one person in the country who doesn’t understand this, apart from the person who put this shameful budget on the Knesset’s table,” stormed Lapid.

“You are the ones who are dealing in the worst and most cynical kind of politics when the State of Israel is fighting for its life,” Lapid charged.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich lauded the passage of the supplementary budget, however, calling it “a good budget that provides answers to the needs of the war at the front and at home.”

Said the finance minister: “The IDF has, as always, full budgetary backing to do whatever it takes to defeat our enemy. On the home front, this budget… provides broad solutions for evacuees, businesses, and [October 7] survivors, [and] for government ministries for the benefit of all Israeli citizens.”

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