In the current toxic political atmosphere, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich did the unthinkable this week: He united the coalition and opposition.
That’s the good news.
The bad news, at least from the Religious Zionist Party leader’s perspective, is that he united them against him.
Likud ministers Gila Gamliel and Amichai Chikli, Shas minister Moshe Arbel, United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni, National Unity Party head Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, and the heads of both Ra’am (The United Arab List) and Hadash-Ta’al – even the leaders of the anti-judicial reform protest movement – all agreed on one thing this week: Smotrich’s decision to withhold hundreds of millions of shekels from Arab municipalities and east Jerusalem students studying in higher education institutions in the city was just a terrible idea.
And they were not alone. Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the National Security Council, and Ronen Bar, director of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), also voiced their opposition.
Yes, it actually happened: a rare moment of near wall-to-wall agreement in this country. When is the last time you remember something like that?
But what is it that Smotrich did, or rather wanted to do?
There were two things. First, the decision to halt the payment of around NIS 314 million in special allocations to Arab municipalities – funds that had mostly been pre-allocated. Secondly, he sought to halt payments to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and three other higher education institutions in Jerusalem. These funds were intended as scholarships for preparatory studies, enabling east Jerusalem residents to enter Israeli universities.
Throughout the week, Smotrich explained his reasoning behind both actions.
Regarding the money to the Arab municipalities, he portrayed them as a prize (he used the word bribe) offered to Ra’am from the previous Bennett-Lapid government, which he contended this government was not legally obligated to honor. Furthermore, he highlighted that these funds, on top of other state funds flowing into the Arab municipalities, were being exploited by organized crime through extortion and the creation of fictitious companies to bid for the municipal tenders.
The root of the surge of violence in the Arab communities was directly related to the unrestricted flow of funds to these municipalities, he argued in a press conference on Wednesday evening. To combat the wave of violence, the money needed to be supervised by the government rather than just poured into the cities, he claimed.
“A large part of the criminal organizations within Arab society thrived by exploiting state funds,” he said. “Many local authorities in the Arab sector fell hostage to organized crime, which acts violently, threatens officials, and blackmails them in order to win tenders through a complicated network of sham companies, fictitious invoices, and more."
“As a result, a large part of the budgets transferred to the authorities go to the criminal organizations and even to organizations that lend a hand in inciting and encouraging terrorism.”
According to Smotrich, the nation is up in arms about the escalating violence within the Arab community, and his actions aim to tackle this issue using the tools at his disposal.
As for withholding funds from educational institutions, Smotrich’s rationale is rooted in what he said is the emergence of extremist Islamic groups within Israeli universities and colleges. These groups, he argued, have repeatedly expressed support for Israel’s enemies and have often created an environment hostile to Jewish students, especially during periods of security tension.
Everyone – from Jerusalem’s Mayor Moshe Lion to the presidents of the institutions in question, to the Shin Bet head – said that these programs are beneficial because they assist with the integration of east Jerusalem Arabs into Israel. It’s better if they study at Hebrew University than at Birzeit University outside of Ramallah, this argument runs. True, but don’t turn Hebrew University into a mirror image of Birzeit, Smotrich responded. He repeatedly spoke of the radicalization of Arab students at Hebrew University, though without giving any evidence to support his claims.
NEVERTHELESS, Smotrich’s argument that the result of this funding is not necessarily a kumbaya reality, is not without foundation. In April 2019, an incident occurred in one of the classes of the preparatory program at Hebrew University, in which two of the 24 east Jerusalem Arab students in the class let it be known that they would be voting in the upcoming elections and were labeled traitors by their peers.
This spurred a lively debate. Asked why these two students should be called traitors, one of the opposing students said that by voting in the national elections, the two were supporting the “occupation.” When the teacher asked how taking free tuition from Israelis is not cooperating with the “occupation,” the student said that Israel was giving it on a silver platter, and to be victorious, to defeat one’s enemy, it is necessary to learn how they think.
When the teacher, who enjoyed a good rapport with the students, replied, “Wait a minute, am I your enemy?” The student said, “No, I like you as a person; it’s Israelis I hate.”
Smotrich, in a KAN Reshet Bet interview, said that Israel is burying its head in the sand if it thinks such programs only foster harmony. For the money to be freed up, he demanded stricter supervision by the university over student activities on campus, though he did not detail exactly what he had in mind.
In response to Smotrich’s arguments, his opponents, particularly those in the opposition, tend to sum it up with a single word: racism.
And therein lies Smotrich’s problem. He has a history of making racist and inflammatory comments that he cannot shake. Anything he says about Israeli Arabs or Palestinians will be summarily dismissed by many because of his history.
Two of his remarks resurfaced repeatedly this week by critics panning his decisions about the funding.
He made the first one seven years ago when he supported separate maternity wards for Arabs and Jews because, as he said, his wife would not want to be in a hospital bed “next to a woman who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby 20 years from now… Arabs are my enemies, and that’s why I don’t enjoy being next to them.”
The other is from this past February, following the terrorist murder of the Yaniv brothers in Huwara, when he said that the village should be “wiped out.”
Even if there might be some valid reasoning behind Smotrich’s recent decisions about the allocation of funds – and this is arguable – that justification is lost because of his ideology and because he is the one proposing these steps. Had the same ideas, with the same rationale, come from someone without his track record, they might have received a more receptive hearing.
However, when Smotrich presents these ideas, the story takes a different turn.
AT THE beginning of his press conference on Wednesday, during which Smotrich announced the establishment of a supervisory body to monitor the funds – a move that many see as a strategy for him to gracefully step away from his decision and ultimately release the money – he turned his attention to the Israeli Arab community and pronounced, “I am your finance minister.”
“I am responsible for all Israeli citizens, irrespective of religion, race, gender, or political view,” he said.” I am working with the prime minister, and other ministers so that you receive the services you and all Israeli citizens deserve.”
Smotrich’s problem is that – in light of past statements – he lacks credibility when it comes to addressing concerns related to Arabs. His argument that, as transportation minister in 2019, he invested heavily in the Arab sector, has done little to ease this credibility gap.
This skepticism isn’t limited to Israeli Arabs or those on the center or left of the political spectrum; it extends to the right-wing camp as well. Figures like Ze’ev Elkin of the opposition National Unity Party criticized Smotrich’s policy moves this week as a blend of racism, arrogance, and ignorance.
It is important to note that Smotrich’s steps cannot be divorced from political considerations, both within the coalition and with regard to the opposition.
Within the coalition, Smotrich’s political rival – the person he would be in a head-to-head competition if elections were held tomorrow – is his erstwhile ally, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Both are targeting the same hard-right voters, but while Ben-Gvir consistently garners media attention and constantly throws red meat to his base, Smotrich’s presence in the news is notably lower. By withholding these funds, Smotrich strategically positioned himself at the forefront of a matter that resonates strongly with his hard-right supporters. This week he stole the spotlight from Ben-Gvir.
This issue also concerns Smotrich’s long-running campaign against Mansour Abbas of the Islamist Ra’am party.
In the aftermath of the 2022 elections, Smotrich singlehandedly prevented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from including Ra’am in his coalition, or relying on the party’s support outside the government, thereby paving the way for the Lapid-Bennett government that included Ra’am.
The NIS 200 million that he held back from the Arab municipalities was money promised Ra’am as part of the coalition agreement with the Lapid-Bennett government, which could be seen on the Arab street as one of the party’s achievements.
While there was a concentrated effort by the Bennett-Lapid government, in which Abbas was a coalition partner, to give him credit for securing benefits for Israeli Arabs, Smotrich does not want to do anything he feels may bolster the Ra’am party.
Some argue that Abbas and Ra’am signify a positive development, showcasing Israeli Arabs’ desire to integrate into society. They believe this should be nurtured.
Smotrich thinks otherwise. He says consistently that he views Ra’am as an Islamic party hostile to the Jewish state. He does not want to do anything that could be interpreted as shoring up the party’s prospects.
“I make a complete distinction between the right of every citizen in Israel to proper services, and my firm opposition to any cooperation with the members of the Knesset, from Ra’am or the Joint List, who are supporters of terrorism and who regularly side with the enemy during war, as we saw just now in the last operation in Jenin and during Operation Guardian of the Walls [in 2021].”
Tellingly, perhaps, just after Smotrich made this comment at his Wednesday press conference, Netanyahu put out a statement saying, “The money will be transferred after proper steps are taken to ensure it reaches its intended purpose. It is the policy of the government to bring prosperity and development to all Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike.”While Smotrich may want to slam the door shut on any possible political cooperation with Ra’am in the future, Netanyahu – apparently – does not. •