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Smotrich to release funds for eastern Jerusalem

Israel's premier, Justice Ministry and National Security Council reportedly pressured Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to fund the program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Education Minister Yoav Kisch during a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, April 30, 2023. Photo by Alex Kolomoisky/Pool.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Education Minister Yoav Kisch during a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, April 30, 2023. Photo by Alex Kolomoisky/Pool.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has agreed to release 200 million shekels ($52.8 million) in funding meant to help integrate eastern Jerusalem residents into Israeli universities, local media reported on Thursday.

Earlier this month, Channel 11 reported that Smotrich had frozen for two months a 2.5 billion shekel ($660.3 million) plan for eastern Jerusalem. The reason was his opposition to a 200 million shekel $52.7 million grant to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem 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,” according to Channel 11.

As a result, it was agreed that the Finance Ministry and 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.

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

According to Kan Reshet Bet radio, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Justice Ministry and the National Security Council also pressured Smotrich to fund the Hebrew University program.

The report added that Smotrich is now at odds with Education Minister Yoav Kisch over how the money will be transferred to eastern Jerusalem.

Kisch is reportedly demanding that he have two representatives on the committee that deals with the issue, but Smotrich wants a smaller panel under his control. Netanyahu is pushing the ministers to reach an understanding, Kan Reshet Bet said.

Several weeks ago, Smotrich similarly froze millions of shekels earmarked for Arab municipalities. 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’s “no justification” for giving Arab municipalities special grants, Smotrich said, as they already receive the same grants as other economically weak 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,” he added.

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.”

However, on Aug. 9, Netanyahu promised to transfer the money, with proper oversight. “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.

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