Ben-Gvir votes against Israeli government's coalition funds in new crisis

Israeli government approved NIS 13.6 billion in coalition • Largest portion to go to haredi private school systems

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir is seen entering a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 14, 2023 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir is seen entering a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 14, 2023
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The cabinet on Sunday approved NIS 13.7 billion in coalition funds in the 2023-2024 national budget, which significantly increases funding for private and semi-private ultra-Orthodox elementary schools and for yeshivot.

The funds now head to the Knesset, where they will be ratified as part of the Economic Arrangements Bill, a bill that accompanies the budget and serves as a package of legislation intended to enable the budget’s implementation.

Coalition funds are a part of the national budget intended to fulfill political agreements that have budgetary significance. These are not part of the official budget of any government ministry. Unlike the rest of the budget, these funds are flexible and can be redirected with relative ease, as they require a cabinet decision and approval by the Knesset Finance Committee, but not an amendment to the actual Budget Law.

Over NIS one billion more than expected

The final sum of NIS 13.7b. is over a billion shekels higher than the previously expected NIS 12.5b. The most prominent part of the funds, nearly 3.9b., is earmarked either for yeshivot, which do not include secular studies or professional training, or for haredi private and semi-private schools that do not have Education Ministry oversight, and thus are de-facto not required to teach core secular studies, such as English and mathematics.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, May 14, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, May 14, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

This marks a 29% increase in institutions that do not contribute to haredi men joining the Israeli workforce, versus just a 1% increase in funds earmarked for programs to integrate haredim into the workforce and into society, according to an analysis by Tal Elovits and Aviad Huminer-Rosenblum of the Berl Katznelson Fund.

This is expected to “direct students away from institutions that do teach core studies,” and to “continue to deepen the drop in education levels of haredi men,” Finance Ministry Chief Economist Shira Grinberg wrote in an opinion that was filed last week after the funds were revealed. Finance Ministry Budget Department head Yoav Gardos also reportedly wrote an opinion criticizing the allocation of funds and warning against their long term implications.

Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid said in response in a video that while coalition funds have always existed, this time the sum was unprecedented and was “corrupt, irresponsible and a disgraceful surrender to extortion.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich waved off criticism prior to the cabinet meeting, arguing that the previous government had given NIS 53b. in funds to the Arab-Israeli party Ra’am and therefore the scope of the current coalition funds is acceptable.

This claim is misleading, however, as the NIS 53b. that Smotrich referred to included funds related to a number of separate projects in the Arab sector, including a NIS 30b. five-year plan that had oversight, a separate NIS 1.5b. plan to fight crime, and more. Moreover, the funds were part of the base of the budget, not of the coalition funds.

Ben-Gvir opposes allocation of Israeli coalition funds

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir reportedly opposed the allocation of the coalition funds, on the grounds that not enough was given to the Development of the Negev and Galilee and National Resilience Ministry, led by his fellow Otzma Yehudit member Yitzhak Wasserlauf.

The issue could develop into another crisis between the national security minister and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after Ben-Gvir’s party last week boycotted the Knesset over what it argued was an insufficient response to rocket attacks from Gaza. The boycott was lifted after the launch of Operation Shield and Arrow.

Otzma’s three ministers, including Ben-Gvir, Wasserlauf and Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, voted against the decision, as did the two ministers from the hassidic faction of United Torah Judaism, Agudat Yisrael: Construction and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf and Jerusalem Affairs and Jewish Tradition Minister Meir Porush.

The Agudat Yisrael ministers claimed that the coalition funds did not meet the promises they received regarding the amount of the hike in the haredi education system’s budgets, according to Goldknopf’s spokesperson.

The coalition funds also included NIS 1b. earmarked for Shas’s flagship program, distribution of food coupons for poor families, despite legal adviser Asi Messing’s opinion filed last week that the program was discriminatory in that the criteria to receive the coupons were skewed towards haredi families. The coupons were a major campaign promise by Shas, and the clause will likely be amended in the Knesset.