ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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Smotrich said to have walked out of meeting with Netanyahu over UTJ budget demands

Finance minister reportedly left discussions earlier in month when PM said he planned to resolve crisis; Deri rebuffed by Agudat Yisrael rabbis when he tried to visit, report says

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a press conference, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2023. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a press conference, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2023. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich reportedly walked out of a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month during a row over budget demands from a Haredi faction.

According to a report Sunday from the Kan public broadcaster, there was a “heated confrontation” during the meeting around two weeks ago, when the premier told Smotrich that he intended to resolve the crisis with the Agudat Yisrael faction of United Torah Judaism.

Agudat Yisrael has been threatening to pull out of the coalition and vote down the budget if it does not receive an additional NIS 600 million ($164 million) for full-time religious scholars.

Failure to pass the budget by May 29 would trigger the automatic dissolution of the government and snap elections.

The report said the prime minister told Smotrich that he intended to fulfill his commitments to the Haredi faction, and presented the finance minister with some numbers.

“I don’t care what is written here, they can’t work with me like that,” Smotrich reportedly said. “Write what you like, and I will sign it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a cabinet meeting held in the Western Wall tunnels on May 21, 2023 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Netanyahu and his cabinet secretary then wrote down numbers, after which Smotrich left the meeting.

The report said the leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party refused to answer his phone for an unspecified period after he left the meeting.

Meanwhile, Shas leader Aryeh Deri — a key ally of Netanyahu — has tried to visit the homes of senior rabbis in Agudat Yisrael in an attempt to mediate and persuade them to withdraw their additional demands but was rebuffed.

A senior official within Agudat Yisrael told Kan that Deri “did not keep his promises from before the elections as a guarantor for the budgets for yeshivas and Haredi institutions. Deri offended the rabbis, and therefore he will not enter their homes.”

Shas chief Aryeh Deri leads a faction meeting, at the Knesset on February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Further discussions on the state budget were set to be held on Monday, with coalition officials hoping to resolve the spats with both Agudat Yisrael and far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit.

Ben Gvir has ordered his Otzma Yehudit lawmakers to boycott Knesset votes in a bid to pressure allied parties to divert more funds to his party’s priorities in the budget, specifically the Negev and Galilee Ministry held by the faction.

Otzma Yehudit has griped that other parties are receiving billions for their projects while it has been given less for the issues it wants to advance, particularly encouraging Jewish settlement in the country’s north and south.

However, according to a Channel 12 news report on Sunday, coalition officials believe that Ben Gvir will eventually fall into line.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir gives a press statement during a meeting of his Otzma Yehudit party in the southern city of Sderot, May 3, 2023. (Flash90)

Netanyahu vowed on Sunday that the 2023-2024 state budget would pass, dismissing widespread reports of tensions within his coalition and declaring that the differences will be bridged.

“I have some experience; I have passed 20 budgets. Last-minute arguments always arise, and we will overcome them,” Netanyahu said.

The Knesset is preparing to vote on the 2023-2024 overall budget, allocating NIS 484.8 billion this year and NIS 513.7 billion in 2024, up from NIS 452.5 billion in 2022.

Out of NIS 13.7 ($3.8) billion in discretionary funds approved by the government on May 14, about NIS 3.7 billion is promised to be spent on increasing the budget for stipends at Haredi yeshiva student institutions, despite criticism that the community’s schools skirt full Education Ministry oversight and fail to teach core subjects to prepare students for the workforce, including math, science and English.

Another NIS 1.2 billion is budgeted for private, non-supervised educational institutions, which also do not teach core subjects such as math and English.

About NIS 1 billion is directed as an allowance for a food voucher program being pushed by Deri. Additional funds will be funneled for ultra-Orthodox education, constructing religious buildings, and supporting Haredi Jewish culture and identity.

Agudat Yisrael has three lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset, meaning the 64-strong coalition can pass the budget without their votes. However, the faction has urged the other party which makes up UTJ — Degel HaTorah led by Moshe Gafni — to join its demand by withholding its four votes.

MK Moshe Gafni, right, and MK Yitzhak Goldknopf speak during a meeting of the United Torah Judaism party at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Moreover, several reports said UTJ leader Yitzhak Goldknopf was threatening to resign as housing and construction minister, allowing him to return to the Knesset as a fourth member of the Agudat Yisrael under the so-called Norwegian law, to vote against the budget. A report last week said Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush, also of the Agudat Yisrael faction, had threatened to do the same.

Former finance minister Avigdor Liberman launched a scathing attack on the budget on Sunday, saying that Netanyahu should “suffer in hell” for the massive subsidies set to be provided to Haredi educational institutions without requiring them to teach core curriculum studies.

“What Netanyahu did, and for that he deserves to suffer in hell every day, is he took those people and said: ‘I will give you the same funds without the need to study core studies. I want you to remain in poverty, without education, and you will suffer,’” Liberman said.

“The fact that Netanyahu has prevented Israeli children from studying core studies is intolerable, unacceptable and unforgivable,” Liberman said.

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