Opposition slams fourfold budget hike for settlements ministry amid war in Gaza

Labor, Yesh Atid say increased funding, political earmarks come at expense of war effort, social needs; Finance Minister Smotrich claims increases are for settlement security needs

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

Labor MK Naama Lazimi (center right) and Yesh Atid MK Vladimir Beliak (center left) speak out against amendments to the 2023 budget, in the Knesset Finance Committee, December 11, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/ Knesset Spokesperson's Department)
Labor MK Naama Lazimi (center right) and Yesh Atid MK Vladimir Beliak (center left) speak out against amendments to the 2023 budget, in the Knesset Finance Committee, December 11, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/ Knesset Spokesperson's Department)

Opposition parties on Monday voiced strident criticism against drastic funding increases for the Settlements and National Projects Ministry, which have been included in the amendments to the 2023 budget currently being advanced in the Knesset.

Labor MK Naama Lazimi objected fiercely to the additional funds for the ministry, saying they came at the expense of compensation payments for evacuees from northern Israel and the Western Negev region close to the Gaza border, while Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid slammed the entire budget as “corrupt and political.”

Settlements Minister Orit Strock rejected the criticism, however, asserting the budget increase was for the security requirements of the settlements.

The 2023 budget is currently being amended by the Knesset to cover the costs of the war in Gaza, the needs of evacuees, and the economic impact of the ongoing military campaign, with an additional NIS 30 billion added to the budget that was approved in May.

When the budget amendments were first proposed last week, the budget of the settlements ministry was increased from some NIS 133 million under the original budget to NIS 343 million.

But on Monday, new documents presented to the Knesset Finance Committee showed new increases for the ministry, which boosted its budget to NIS 543 million.

Finance Minister and leader of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a faction meeting in Knesset, December 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lazimi pointed out during the committee deliberations that there were delays to the finalization of the budget amendments, slamming Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich for using the time to arrange funding increases for the settlements ministry, which is strongly connected to the electorate of his Religious Zionism party.

“What was the delay for? Not for improving the social benefits for IDF reserve soldiers, but for the settlement’s ministry, an updated budget of NIS 543 million, for the millions in sectoral funds for the finance minister, not for evacuees,” charged Lazimi.

Lapid denounced the budget amendments during his address to the committee, describing it as “the division of spoils” among the coalition’s political parties, and “a corrupt and political budget which will take us to the void during a war after the greatest catastrophe in the history of the country.”

Lapid noted IDF units were seeking donations to purchase ceramic vests and other military equipment, and that political earmarks in the budget were unjustifiable in these circumstances.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees, the state is taking money it doesn’t have, paying ruinous interest on it, and then wasting it on politics, on everything which can help the prime minister remain in power a little longer,” alleged Lapid.

Yesh Atid chairman and Leader of the Opposition MK Yair Lapid speaks out against the budget amendments for the 2023 budget in the Knesset Finance Committee, December 11, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson’s Department)

Strock hit back at Lazimi on X, insisting that the budget increases were due to additional security requirements for West Bank settlements, in light of the current security situation.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, Naama. Isn’t the security of the families of fallen soldiers who are being brought for burial right now, and those who are injured and hospitalized, and those who are fighting right now in Gaza for us all — is their security sectoral,” demanded Strock, who is a member of Religious Zionism.

“Just because they live in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], do they not deserve budget increases for security needs — that is the budget that is being added and you know it.”

MK Vladimir Bialik of Yesh Atid questioned why these funds were not being directed through the Defense Ministry if they were for security needs, and said he would examine the issue carefully on Tuesday, when the relevant budget items are discussed in the finance committee.

Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry, defended the budget increase, charging that the criticism was part of “an awful campaign of incitement against the settlements” in the West Bank.

“Lower your gaze from the dozens of mothers and wives of those [soldiers] who have fallen who were from the settlements who fell for the protection of the residents of the Gaza border region and the State of Israel,” said Smotrich during his party’s faction meeting in reference to the high proportion of IDF combat soldiers and officers who come from national-religious communities.

“The awful and terrible price that settlements are paying in military sacrifices victims is immeasurably greater than its proportion of the population and you are inciting against them? You are casting doubt on their demand to receive basic protection against the Arab enemy?” fumed the finance minister.

The Knesset Finance Committee will hold further hearings on the budget amendments on Tuesday, and it is expected to be brought to the plenum for its final readings on Wednesday.

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