ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Smotrich reportedly freezes millions earmarked for Arab towns

Shas Interior Minister Moshe Arbel said to warn finance minister of potential harm to local municipal budgets if he does not release funds – to no avail

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting of his Religious Zionism party at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, July 17, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting of his Religious Zionism party at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, July 17, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has reportedly frozen grants earmarked for Arab municipalities so he can “reconsider” what to do with the money.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, NIS 200 million ($55 million) set aside for economic development has yet to be transferred to Arab local authorities despite a warning from Interior Minister Moshe Arbel of the Shas party.

Smotrich told Kan that he is “reconsidering” the transfer of funds as he weighs his “priorities” for the funding and the “supervision mechanisms” in place. He added that the current government is “not beholden” to a coalition promise made by former interior minister Ayelet Shaked to Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas.

The funds, aimed at boosting the economy, upgrading infrastructure and fighting crime in Arab communities, were approved by the previous government that included the Islamist Ra’am party alongside left-wing, centrist and right-wing parties that united in opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Abbas told Kan on Sunday that the “Netanyahu-Smotrich budget is deepening discrimination and widening the gaps in Israel and abandoning the Arab community to criminal organizations,” and called on the prime minister to intervene.

Kan published a letter on Sunday sent to Smotrich from Arbel calling on the finance minister “to release” hundreds of millions of shekels to Arab municipalities. Failure to do so, Arbel warned, “may lead to significant damage to the local authorities’ budgetary balance,” in the latter, dated July 26.

Interior and Health Minister Moshe Arbel arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 7, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the report Smotrich has yet to free up the funds in any manner, and they remain with the Finance Ministry.

Last month, Smotrich reportedly considered cutting NIS 130 million promised to Arab municipalities in order to fund an increased stipend for yeshiva students demanded by ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition. Hebrew media reports later indicated Smotrich had nixed that plan.

The Abraham Initiatives, which advocates social equality for the Jewish and Arab communities, warned that reducing the Arab development budget in favor of increasing funding for yeshiva students “will be a grave mistake that will be reflected in an increase in violence and crime in the Arab communities and will seriously damage the attempt to reduce the gaps between Arabs and Jews in Israel.”

Haim Bibas, chairman of the umbrella Federation of Local Authorities, sent a letter to Netanyahu pleading with him to “not lend a hand to this fatal blow.”

“It can’t be that at this time when the situation in Arab society is so grave the Finance Ministry intends to enact a drastic cut in the program to reduce the gaps [between Arabs and Jews] and to harm the millions of residents of Arab authorities in a critical way.”

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