Treasury officials said blindsided by Netanyahu promise of emergency stipends
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Treasury officials said blindsided by Netanyahu promise of emergency stipends

PM pledges NIS 500 per child and the elderly ahead of Passover, with more than 1 million out of work, but not clear where money will come from or if it will arrive in time

An Israeli child watch as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a live press conference on the new government restrictions for the public regarding the coronavirus COVID-19 on March 19, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)
An Israeli child watch as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a live press conference on the new government restrictions for the public regarding the coronavirus COVID-19 on March 19, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Treasury officials were reportedly blindsided by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday when he promised stipends for Passover for Israeli children and pensioners.

Netanyahu announced that families will receive a one-off payment of NIS 500 per child (approximately $140), up to the fourth child, ahead of the upcoming Passover holiday. There will also be stipends for the elderly, he said, without specifying the minimum age.

He said these payments will be approved via emergency legislation, and that payments will be made directly into bank accounts, with no bureaucratic red tape.

Senior Finance Ministry officials told Channel 12 that the move was not coordinated with them and they did not know where the money was supposed to come from.

It was not immediately clear what the total cost of the package would be, but it could run to several billion shekels.

However, sources close to the prime minister told Channel 12 that the proposal for the stipends was made by ministry officials and the Treasury was a full partner in the decision.

Channel 12 also said it was doubtful the money would reach families by the holiday, which starts April 8, noting that lawmakers would need to convene in the Knesset, draft the legislation and pass it in three readings. Only after this could the money begin to be distributed.

People wear face masks to protect them from the coronavirus as they buy matzot, unleavened bread traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Passover, at a supermarket in Jerusalem, March 31, 2020 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Under the current transitional government, not all the necessary Knesset committees have been set up and lawmakers have also faced technical restrictions to voting as they maintain social distancing.

One option that was being explored was to temporarily increase the amounts sent to people through existing child and old age stipends, which are paid by the National Insurance Institute on the 20th and 28th of each month respectively.

Netanayhu’s announcement came as widespread restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the disease have rocked Israel’s economy.

Israel on Wednesday registered more than a million jobless citizens for the first time in its existence, as the coronavirus pandemic was putting more and more workplaces out of business.

The National Employment Service said that the number of unemployed stood at 1,004,316, with 35,668 new people registering for its services on Tuesday — the highest daily figure since last Thursday.

Almost a quarter of Israel’s workforce — 24.1 percent — is now jobless, including some 160,000 people who had been unemployed before the crisis.

“Unfortunately, our forecasts have been proven true and we reached a million job-seekers in March,” said Employment Service director general Rami Garor.

He said his organization was working to “create circumstances” in which the unemployment rate could be lowered and the job market could gradually reopen as much as possible.

People outside the unemployment bureau in Jerusalem. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

While salaried workers are covered up to 75% of their earnings for a limited period of time, Israel’s self-employed workers are not entitled to unemployment benefits. The government is working on a package that is expected to give some 175,000 self-employed people a grant of up to NIS 6,000 ($1,675) with an average expected payment of NIS 4,300 ($1,200).

Israel has unveiled a NIS 80 billion ($22.5 billion) economic rescue plan to help the economy survive the pandemic.

Garor welcomed the plan, but stressed that stipends weren’t the goal but rather a mechanism to help people survive financially until they can work again.

Among those seeking state benefits, 89.8% have been placed on unpaid leave by their workplaces, while 6.3% were fired, according to the National Employment Service.

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