Def. minister: I'm not prepared for politics to harm the IDF

Knesset passes veterans scholarships law after Likud agrees to Gantz’s compromise

Defense minister alters bill at last minute so that it covers 75% of ex-combat soldiers’ tuition costs instead of the originally proposed 67%, leading Likud to drop its opposition

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a plenum session in the Knesset on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a plenum session in the Knesset on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset passed legislation early Tuesday granting tuition scholarships to IDF veterans, after the Likud party agreed to a last-minute compromise proposal from Defense Minister Benny Gantz and withdrew its opposition to the bill.

The coalition legislation originally sought to cover two-thirds of combat veterans’ tuition, and Likud refused to offer its support — first insisting that it didn’t want to give the coalition a parliamentary victory and then clarifying that it would only do so if the bill was amended to cover 100 percent of former soldiers’ college costs.

Two-thirds, however, has been the funding rate since the hitherto privately funded scholarship program began in 2016. Coalition sources said the decision not to fully fund the scholarships intentionally leaves space for student self-funding, in order to create a sense of obligation for recipients to finish school.

Coalition leaders decided to move forward with the vote on Monday evening, daring the opposition parties to vote against such a popular bill. As the vote neared, though, the 60-MK coalition appeared not to have enough votes to get it through, given reported refusal from the coalition’s Islamist Ra’am faction and MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (Meretz), and rebel MK Idit Silman (Yamina), to back the measure.

Moments before the vote was to be held, however, Gantz announced that he was prepared to meet Likud halfway so that the bill would cover 75% of combat veterans’ tuition costs.

Opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu’s party then convened an emergency meeting during which it agreed to accept the proposal. At the conclusion of the sit-down, Netanyahu invited in a group of veterans lobbying for the bill and they all filmed a video in which the ex-soldiers thanked the Likud for its support.

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with IDF combat veterans after agreeing to support a coalition bill to fund the tuition of ex-soldiers on May 24, 2022. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Netanyahu then clarified that he would also be submitting the Likud’s amendment, for scholarships to cover 100% of tuition costs to a voice-vote in the plenum. The coalition went on to vote against that Likud measure, and was joined by the opposition’s Joint List, ensuring that it fell.

Next, a final vote was held on the compromise bill, though the Joint List submitted a request that it be considered a no-confidence vote in the government. As a result, all of the lawmakers from the opposition’s right-wing and religious parties walked out of the plenum, rather than vote in favor of the coalition. The legislation passed 55-6, bringing an end to the latest test for a coalition that over the past week appeared on the brink of total collapse.

Shortly before the vote was held, Gantz took to the plenum podium to explain his decision to compromise.

“I decided to put an end to it. My goal is not to harm the Likud,” he said. “My offer is good and serves the entire Israeli society… I am not prepared for politics to harm the IDF.”

“We did it!” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted after the law passed, saying it will go into effect immediately, ensuring scholarships for 16,500 combat soldiers.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a plenum session in the Knesset on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud lawmakers said in their own statements after the vote that their pressure was what led to Gantz to agree to increase the scholarship rates, adding that they also proved that they had been willing to fund veterans’ tuition completely.

Some members of Likud had been waffling in their support for the party line, expressing discomfort in Netanyahu’s original insistence that they vote against a bill to grant scholarships to combat soldiers, regardless of the rate.

But then Rinawie Zoabi announced last Thursday that she would be quitting the coalition, leaving the ruling bloc with just 59 members in the 120-MK parliament. Likud then issued a statement declaring that all of its members had rallied around Netanyahu’s stance against the bill, asserting that the government would soon fall and that the religious, right-wing bloc would be able to pass the same legislation later this year when it returns to power.

On Sunday though, Rinawie Zoabi walked back her decision to quit, breathing some new life into the hobbling coalition.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks with Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi during a plenum session at the Knesset on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The broadly popular tuition scholarship program, called “MeMadim LeLimudim,” or “From Uniforms to Studies,” provides a two-thirds tuition scholarship for former combat troops, and other designated soldiers, toward earning an academic degree. An initiative of former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, the scholarships started in 2016 and are intended to make educational opportunities more accessible to soldiers without means.

Among the non-combat soldiers covered by the new law are troops from economically disadvantaged homes, Druze and Arab soldiers, “lone soldiers” who serve without immediate family in Israel, and new immigrants.

Funding was initially provided by private donor organizations, but in order to cut down on conditions imposed upon the grants, the government, led by Gantz, wanted to fund the scholarships through the Defense Ministry. To be part of the defense budget, the scholarships needed to be approved by law.

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