In his latest move to curtail funds earmarked for the Arab public, Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich announced on Monday the freeze of a five-year, NIS 2.5 billion ($680 million) plan for the development of East Jerusalem, citing the program’s inclusion of funds for a preparatory program (mechina) for Arab students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The finance minister, in a long Facebook post, explained that the five-year investment is indeed aimed at strengthening education among East Jerusalemites, and the government “prefers Arab students attending Israeli universities rather than Palestinian ones.” However, Smotrich wrote, it first needs to tackle the “thorn on the side” of Israeli academia, namely “Islamic radical cells in Israeli colleges and universities,” before freeing the money.
Such alleged cells “identify themselves with the enemy” under the pretext of “academic freedom,” and “in times of security tensions make the lives of Jewish students unbearable,” the minister wrote.
A spokesperson for Smotrich, approached by The Times of Israel, could not provide any evidence of the existence of such “radical Islamist cells” in Israeli academia, and asserted that the minister and other members of his party were referring to “nationalistic” pro-Palestinian student groups.
Smotrich said that the sum will be earmarked for training East Jerusalem Arabs for “high-productivity” professions instead of encouraging their integration into Israeli academia.
He further claimed that Arab students are given preference in academia over Jews who served in the army, and that the one-year preparatory program, which teaches Hebrew and other foundational subjects for academia, was initially designed for new Jewish immigrants and lone soldiers, who today are only a minority of participants and their needs remain uncatered for.
The NIS 200 million ($54 million) allocation for the academic preparatory program was first approved as part of the previous five-year plan for East Jerusalem, under the Netanyahu government in 2018 by ministers Zeev Elkin and Ayelet Shaked. It was then carried over during the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government in 2021-2022, again under the supervision of Ayelet Shaked, and expired in June 2023.
The plan, according to experts, was designed mainly to establish and strengthen Israeli governance and sovereignty over the Arab parts of Jerusalem, and did not address the main plight afflicting residents of the east of the city — namely the severe housing shortage and lack of building permits. It did, however, contain some positive elements, one of which was bolstering education among Jerusalem Palestinians, with funding for schools operating under the Israeli system, and the academic preparatory program.
The upcoming five-year plan, which contains a slight increase in funding compared to the previous one (NIS 2.5 billion as opposed to NIS 2.2 billion, not adjusted for inflation), has temporarily been halted for two months pending a decision by Smotrich on how to reallocate the NIS 200 million diverted from the preparatory program.
“I do not apologize for promoting my values and policies. This is what I was elected for. I am not a rubber stamp [for decisions taken by previous governments],” Smotrich wrote.
A spokesperson for the minister said that an inter-ministerial team will be set up to assess options to foster “high-productivity jobs” for East Jerusalemites, while at the same time “preventing nationalist extremism” among young Arabs in universities.
The finance minister already caused an uproar on Sunday by announcing a NIS 200 million shekel cut to grants earmarked for Arab municipalities that had been approved by the previous government, in spite of a warning from Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (Shas) that the freeze may lead to “significant damage to local authorities’ budgetary balance.”
According to Kan news, the head of the National Security Council, Tzachi Hanegbi, gave Smotrich an “unequivocal security recommendation” on Monday to encourage higher education in Jerusalem as a tool to reduce the terrorist threat.
According to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar warned Smotrich in a phone call that “revoking this funding will increase motivation for violent nationalistic acts.”
The government’s socio-economic cabinet was scheduled to discuss the five-year plan on Tuesday, but the item was postponed amid criticism of Smotrich’s decision by officials and experts.
In a statement to the Times of Israel, Ra’am Party leader MK Mansour Abbas declared that “the funds allocated to Arab communities, including in East Jerusalem, are rightfully theirs, and not a mercy bestowed upon them by anyone.
“Their goal is to reduce gaps, solve problems and advance [Arab] society,” Abbas added. “Smotrich has a racist agenda and is trying to torpedo any decision in favor of Arab citizens and residents based on wrongful assertions, and is thereby hurting their basic rights.”
Hebrew University issued an official response sharply criticizing the fund cut. In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the university expressed its “shock” at the announcement, and said that the decision will “relegate hundreds of young people to a life of ignorance, poverty, crime and terror.
“In the past decade, thousands of students from East Jerusalem were enrolled in preparatory programs in the city: at Hebrew University, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Azrieli College, and Hadassah College. Most such students are today thriving in the job market and are integrating into Israeli life. The finance minister’s puzzling decision would doom the young people of East Jerusalem to a fate of indolence, without promise of employment and without the ability to live in a shared society,” the letter read.
“The meaning of this decision is no less than damage to Israel’s society and its economy, and we will all pay for this damage for decades to come,” the university wrote.
It also emphasized the role of integration in “shattering barriers of prejudice and stereotypes,” and “enabling Jews and Arabs to build relationships based on trust,” and warned the repeal of the program will “increase hostility, enmity and violence between the two communities.”