Smotrich adamant funds for Arab towns will be cut

Far-right finance minister says he has Netanyahu’s backing to halt East Jerusalem funding, alleges money earmarked for Arab authorities goes to organized crime

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

Amid a growing outcry and accusations of racism, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supports his decision to freeze a higher education plan for East Jerusalem, and reiterated that additionally he would not transfer money previously set aside for economic development in Arab local authorities.

Smotrich was asked about his decision to freeze a program for the development of higher education in East Jerusalem, in which he cited as a reason the plan’s inclusion of funds for a preparatory program for Arab students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“I am coordinating with the prime minister. I met with him, and I explained it him and he supports this position. I received his agreement,” Smotrich told the Kan public broadcaster.

The leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party also said that he would not transfer NIS 200 million ($55 million) for Arab municipalities that had been approved by the previous government, in spite of a warning from Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (Shas) that the freeze may lead to “significant damage to local authorities’ budgetary balance.”

“The decision is final, the budget will not be transferred,” Smotrich said. “If we find real ways to really transfer money to the Arab citizens of Israel, then we will help where necessary.”

The leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party claimed that he had made the decision in order to prevent the funds from falling into the hands of organized crime.

“A large number authorities in Arab society have fallen prey to criminal organizations. The funding ends up in the hands of those that cause damage,” Smotrich said.

“Money is the main generator of organized crime and it is impossible for the state to fund these things,” he claimed, brushing off questions as to whether his allegation justified cutting funding in areas such as trash collection and childcare.

“The money has no professional justification, except for political needs” of mayors ahead of local elections, Smotrich claimed.

The funds, aimed at boosting the economy, upgrading infrastructure and fighting crime in Arab communities, were approved by the previous government, which included the Islamist Ra’am party alongside left-wing, centrist and right-wing parties that united in opposition to Netanyahu.

Smotrich was asked by Kan to name one official in the budget department of the Finance Ministry who supported his decision not to transfer the money.

“Do I work for you?” the public servant responded, bristling. “What is this cross-examination?”

A wave of violent crime has engulfed the Arab community in Israel in recent years. Many community leaders blame the crime wave on the police, who they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations and largely ignore the violence. They also point to decades of neglect and discrimination by government offices as the root cause of the problem.

National Unity leader Benny Gantz on Monday said Smotrich’s decision not to transfer the money to the Arab municipalities “reeks of racism.”

“Treating crime in the Arab community is in the interest of all of Israeli society and not just the Arab community,” Gantz said. “Police enforcement alone is not enough; there needs to be widespread and serious investment across all spheres: education, infrastructure, welfare and more.”

“This decision by Finance Minister Smotrich to hold up NIS 200 million that was promised to the Arab authorities reeks of racism and harms not only them, but society as a whole,” he said.

Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas, chairman of the umbrella Federation of Local Authorities and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and Wadi Ara’ara Mayor Mudar Younes, director of the National Council of Arab Mayors, sent a letter Monday to Netanyahu with an urgent request that the money be released so that it can be used to help strengthen those localities.

The budget is “necessary,” the letter said, “to reduce disparities, integrate into the labor market, and reduce violence and crime.”

Rahat Mayor Atta Abu Mdegm told the Ynet news site on Tuesday that Smotrich was “a racist minister” and that he was acting as if the money were his own personal fund.

“The budgets that are being cut will harm security, gardening and cleaning services,” he said. “I have no other sources of funding. The Finance Ministry is abusing us.”

“This is a public fund and not [Smotrich’s] father’s grocery store. We wrote a letter to the prime minister and will petition the High Court if we don’t get an answer. His racist agenda is that Arabs are not citizens. This is a racist minister,” he said.

Leader of the Islamist Ra’am party Mansour Abbas also attacked the decision.

“You have to be a failed and very bad economist — not just a racist — to cancel the funding of Arab local authorities as Finance Minister Smotrich insists on doing,” Abbas told Nas Radio.

Unnamed officials in the Finance Ministry have spoken to a number of news outlets in recent days to express their dismay at the decision, with one noting to Channel 13 news that there is little oversight over the huge sums of money transferred to ultra-Orthodox municipalities.

“It is possible to debate whether it is right to transfer grants to the Arab authorities in advance — it is not always effective,” the official told Channel 13 news.

“But from the moment we gave a promise, the other side was counting on the money,” the official said. “Only now do we remember that everyone is corrupt there? Has anyone checked whether every shekel is used correctly in ultra-Orthodox municipalities? This is not how a state budget is run. We are racking our brains as to how to prevent a crisis in the [Arab] communities.”

Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel from the coalition’s Likud party also called on Smotrich to walk back the decision on the East Jerusalem higher education program.

“Integrating the Arab population into academia has social, economic and security importance,” the former social equality minister said in a statement.

The finance minister said Monday that while the higher education element of the five-year NIS 2.5 billion ($680 million) plan is aimed at strengthening education among East Jerusalemites, and the government “prefers Arab students attending Israeli universities rather than Palestinian ones,” it first needs to tackle the “thorn in the side” of Israeli academia, namely “Islamic radical cells in Israeli colleges and universities,” before freeing the money.

Such alleged cells “identify themselves with the enemy” under the pretext of “academic freedom,” and “in times of security tensions make the lives of Jewish students unbearable,” the minister claimed.

A spokesperson for Smotrich could not provide any evidence of the existence of such “radical Islamist cells” in Israeli universities, and asserted that the minister and other members of his party were referring to “nationalistic” pro-Palestinian student groups.

According to Kan news, the head of the National Security Council, Tzachi Hanegbi, gave Smotrich an “unequivocal security recommendation” on Monday to encourage higher education in Jerusalem as a tool to reduce the threat of terror.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem said that Shin Bet head Ronen Bar warned Smotrich in a phone call that “revoking this funding will increase motivation for violent nationalistic acts.”

Gianluca Pacchiani contributed to this report.

August 9, 2023 | 1 Comment »

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