Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised on Wednesday to transfer special funding to local governments in Arab communities with proper oversight, after Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich held up their distribution.
“The funds for the Arab local authorities in Israel will be transferred pursuant to an evaluation and supervision that they will be used for their designated purpose—for the benefit of Israel’s Arab citizens and nothing else,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
“My policy is to facilitate the development and social welfare of all Israeli citizens, Arab and Jew alike. Proof to this effect is that my governments have invested more in Israel’s Arab citizens than all other governments combined,” he added.
“Israel’s Arab citizens deserve what all citizens deserve and I am committed to this. This is what I demand of all government ministries and it will be carried out following an evaluation to ensure that the funds are indeed transferred for their designated purpose,” continued the premier.
Netanyahu issued the statement immediately after Smotrich reiterated on Wednesday that the budgets would be transferred only with proper oversight.
“Despite all the pressures and the fraudulent campaign against me, I will not allow the funds to be transferred without clear mechanisms to ensure that they will reach their destination and not go to criminal organizations or incitement to terrorism,” said Smotrich.
On Monday, Smotrich rejected a request from Interior Minister Moshe Arbel to transfer millions of shekels earmarked for Arab municipalities, saying he would reconsider what to do with the funds.
In a letter dated July 26, Arbel asked that 200 million shekels ($54 million) be transferred to the Arab municipalities, saying that failing to do so would deal a severe blow to the locales.
The money had been promised under the previous government by then-Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to coalition partner Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am (United Arab List) Party.
“There are more urgent and important needs than continuing to transfer political funds for the Ra’am Party,” Smotrich said in his reply to Arbel.
Smotrich also took issue with the interior minister’s claim that the consensus in the professional echelon was that the money 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 recommendation,” Smotrich said.
There’s “no justification” for giving Arab municipalities special grants, he added, as they already receive the same grants as other economically depressed municipalities. The only reason for the additional funding was the previous government’s need to satisfy the demands of Abbas, who sought to “bribe his voters in Arab society,” added Smotrich.
The finance minister said that the budgets “often go to criminal and terrorist organizations” that 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.”
On Sunday, Channel 11 reported that Smotrich similarly froze for two months a 2.5 billion shekel ($680 million) plan for eastern Jerusalem, which is largely Arab. The reason was his opposition to a 200 million shekel grant to the 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 channel 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, Smotrich’s office said.