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Smotrich freezes special grant to Arab localities

There's "no justification" for the special grants, said the Israeli finance minister, as they already receive the same amount as other authorities.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting of his Religious Zionism Party in Givat Harel, Feb. 14, 2023. Photo by Sraya Diamant/Flash90.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting of his Religious Zionism Party in Givat Harel, Feb. 14, 2023. Photo by Sraya Diamant/Flash90.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Monday rejected a request from Interior Minister Moshe Arbel to transfer millions of shekels earmarked for Arab municipalities, saying he will reconsider what to do with the funds.

In a letter dated July 26, Arbel asked that 200 million shekels ($55 million) be transferred to the Arab municipalities, arguing that failing to do so would deal a severe blow to the municipalities as they had already planned their budgets on the assumption that they would receive the funds.

The money had been promised under the previous government by then-Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to coalition partner Mansour Abbas, head of the Arab Ra’am Party.

“There are more urgent and important needs than continuing to transfer political funds for the Ra’am Party,” Smotrich said in his reply.

Smotrich took issue with Arbel’s statement that the consensus of the professional echelon was that the funds should be transferred.

“Contrary to what was said in your letter, the professionals at the Ministry of Finance also believe that this budget has no professional justification. They opposed it under the previous government and it was passed against their viewpoint,” he said.

There’s “no justification” for giving Arab municipalities special grants, he added, as they already receive the same grants as economically depressed municipalities. The only reason for the additional money was the previous government’s need to satisfy the demands of Abbas, who sought to “bribe his voters in Arab society,” said Smotrich.

The finance minister also said that the budgets “often go to criminal and terrorist organizations” which dominate the bidding process for projects in Arab areas. “As you no doubt know, so far there is no mechanism in place to track these bids,” he said.

“Tenders for garbage removal, gardening, transportation, etc., which originate from the current authorities’ budgets, are carried out by the authorities themselves, and as mentioned, too often end up in the hands of terrorist [and] criminal actors,” said Smotrich. “That harms the personal security of all of us, Jews and Arabs alike, depresses the economy in Arab society and deepens corruption.”

Ra’am’s Abbas protested the move, arguing that Arab municipalities “practically can’t function without additional support from the government.” He said that the Netanyahu government had approved the budget, but that the transfer wasn’t implemented due to the sole opposition of the finance minister.

On Sunday, Channel 11 reported that Smotrich similarly froze for two months a 2.5 billion shekel ($680.4 million) plan for eastern Jerusalem, which is largely Arab. The reason was his opposition to a 200 million shekel ($54.4 million) grant to Hebrew University for a program to integrate Arab students.

“Smotrich claimed in closed conversations that integrating Arabs into universities encourages nationalism and extremism and that he has a principled objection to the transfer of the funds,” the news site reported.

A statement from Smotrich’s office confirmed that “in recent years we have witnessed nationalist extremism within the universities.” As a result, it was agreed that the Finance Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality would set up a joint team to explore ways to use the money to instead encourage “gainful employment” for the Arab population in eastern Jerusalem.

Israel’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, however, urged Smotrich to use the funds for their original purpose, stating that encouraging higher education among Arabs in eastern Jerusalem reduces terrorism in the capital, Channel 11 reported.

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