(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A fierce fight has broken out within the coalition surrounding the allocation of budgets from the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization and funding for yeshiva students, which is preventing the transfer of the 2014 budget surplus to the 2015 budget.
The dispute has been brewing for some time but exploded on Tuesday in the Knesset Finance Committee when committee chairman MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism withdrew several budget items for the Settlement Division which were scheduled for a vote.
Gafni claims that national- religious yeshivot are getting greater funding than haredi yeshivot, and demands that this be changed. He also demands that haredi settlements in the West Bank get funding from the Settlement Division.
Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich refused to continue voting, following the withdrawal of the budget items on Tuesday, so a meeting was set up on Wednesday, at the behest of the prime minister, with Gafni, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and Shas chairman Arye Deri, with the mediation of Likud Minister Ze’ev Elkin.
Bennett apparently refused to attend, because of his objection to Gafni’s behavior, and strongly criticized him for his actions.
“There is equality [in yeshiva funding] and I’m taking care of everyone,” Bennett said in an interview to Radio Kol Barama.
“He’s making a big mistake with his behavior.”
“I don’t understand why there’s a need for a fight and to blame settlements and the national-religious [sector] for everything. Do I attack haredim? We don’t need to fight with each other. I prefer to work with people of peace who are looking for the path of peace and aren’t looking for a fight,” Bennett continued.
Following Bennett’s comments, a spokesman for Gafni fired back against the Bayit Yehudi leader on Twitter, claiming that Bennett has not visited any haredi schools during his tenure as education minister and saying that “it seems that those who claim the man simply hates haredim are correct.”
Elkin described the dispute following the meeting as “a severe crisis” but said that progress had been made. Further meetings are expected to try to resolve the issues.
The Settlement Division of the WZO provides funds to small towns around the country, including settlements in the West Bank, but is the subject of much controversy since budget surpluses frequently get directed to the body and are distributed, critics argue, to pet projects of government members.
Gafni has demanded that funds from the Settlement Division be directed to large haredi settlements in the West Bank such as Modi’in Illit and Betar Illit.
He also demands that Education Minister Bennett change the criteria for giving yeshiva stipends to yeshiva students from abroad. The previous government made changes to these criteria to make them dependent on a program of activities including visiting an army base, the Western Wall and Yad Vashem. UTJ and Shas want these criteria changed.