Smotrich said to want millions from Arab economic plan to cover yeshiva stipends

Finance minister reportedly orders drawing funds from economic development plan to cover stipends demanded by ultra-Orthodox parties; local authorities chief asks PM to block move

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 reportedly plans to siphon tens of millions of shekels earmarked for economic development in the Arab community to instead cover the cost of paying additional stipends to yeshiva students demanded by ultra-Orthodox political parties.

Smotrich is seeking to carve NIS 130 million ($36 million) from an NIS 32 billion ($10 billion) plan meant to upgrade welfare, health services, education, infrastructure and more in long-neglected Arab cities, the Kan public broadcaster reported Monday without citing sources.

According to the report, Smotrich instructed ministry staff to examine the possibility of using the money to fund the stipends for full-time yeshiva students, amid gripes from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies that the enhanced benefits their community was guaranteed by the recent state budget weren’t sufficient.

In response to the report, the leader of the federation of local authorities sent a letter to Netanyahu pleading with him to prevent the “fatal blow.”

Smotrich was forced to look for other sources for the stipends after Education Minister Yoav Kisch refused to make up the shortfall from his budget, according to the report.

Smotrich said the NIS 130 million had been left out of the budget “due to a technical mistake,” when asked about it at his far-right Religious Zionism party’s weekly faction meeting in the Knesset Monday.

“There is a budgetary source, everything is alright,” he said, Kan reported.

Federation of Local Authorities chair and Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas attends a Knesset Finance Committee meeting in Jerusalem, January 17, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In a report Sunday, Kan said the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties claimed the 2023-2024 budget passed in May did not raise the payments to the level they seek and they were therefore now demanding more.

The sum would be on top of discretionary funds included in the budget to increase stipends for Haredi men who choose to engage in full-time study of religious texts instead of working and serving in the military.

The Abraham Initiatives, which advocates social equality for the Jewish and Arab communities, said in a statement to Kan 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.”

Israel’s Arab community has been battered by a wave of deadly violence that has already seen more homicides since the beginning of the year — 125 — than during all of 2022.

Leader of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party MK Avigdor Lieberman, who campaigns to end what he claims is unfair benefits for the ultra-Orthodox community, posted on his Facebook account, “The age of the suckers is over, stop the extortion.”

Haim Bibas, chairman of the umbrella Federation of Local Authorities, sent a letter Tuesday 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.”

Meanwhile, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a political ally of Smotrich, urged canceling the entire Arab community development plan.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It is unthinkable that the right-wing government will act to continue the implementation of the coalition agreements that the previous government granted to the Muslim Brotherhood and their representatives, instead of changing and correcting the same decision, which grants unprecedented funding and powers through anti-Zionist elements,” Ben Gvir wrote in an official missive, demanding the cabinet revoke the plan.

The program was 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.

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