Smotrich said to release NIS 200m for East Jerusalem academic program

Far-right finance minister had cited ‘radical Islamic cells’ in Israeli universities as reason for withholding funds for preparatory course integrating Palestinians

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a discussion and a vote at the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a discussion and a vote at the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has agreed to re-allocate hundreds of millions of shekels to help integrate East Jerusalem residents into Israeli universities, backing down from his recent insistence that the cash not be used for that purpose, according to a Thursday report.

Earlier this month Smotrich announced he was cutting NIS 200 million ($54 million) for an academic preparatory program – known in Hebrew as mechina – aimed at Palestinian students from East Jerusalem.

The move to cut the funding, which Smotrich justified by citing an alleged presence of “radical Islamic cells” in Israeli universities, also caused a temporary freeze of a much broader five-year NIS 2.5 billion ($680 million) plan for the development of East Jerusalem.

Smotrich then said that the NIS 200 million will be earmarked for training East Jerusalem Palestinians for “high-productivity” professions instead of encouraging their integration into Israeli universities, and that he will set up a special committee to monitor use of the funds.

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Justice Ministry, and the National Security Council pressured Smotrich to release the funds for the academic program.

As a result, on Wednesday evening an updated version of a proposal being considered for transfer of the money was circulated with its explanatory notes specifying the cash will go to the academic program, the Kan public broadcaster reported Thursday.

The report also said a fight is brewing between Smotrich and Education Minister Yoav Kisch of the ruling Likud party. Kisch is demanding that he have two representatives on the panel that is to review how the money for higher education will be transferred to East Jerusalem, while Smotrich wants a smaller forum under his control. Netanyahu is pushing the ministers to reach an agreement on the matter, the report said.

Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, has drawn accusations of racism from opposition lawmakers over his handling of Arab community budgets.

Aside from the academic program funding, Smotrich also recently said he will not release another NIS 200 million aimed at development in Arab municipalities, claiming the cash will go to organized crime groups or be used to support terrorism. The funds — aimed at boosting the economy, upgrading infrastructure and fighting crime in Arab communities — were approved by the previous government, which included the Islamist Ra’am party alongside left-wing, centrist and right-wing parties that united in opposition to Netanyahu.

Amid criticism of Smotrich also from coalition lawmakers, Netanyahu has said the funding for Arab municipalities will go ahead, but with oversight.

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