Ultra-Orthodox Groups Get $3.1 Million Budget Boost From the Knesset

Finance committee approves allocation at behest of Netanyahu-controlled treasury.

Zvi Zrahiya
Zvi Zrahiya
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MK Moshe Gafni at a meeting of the Knesset's Finance Committee, August 12, 2014.
MK Moshe Gafni at a meeting of the Knesset's Finance Committee, August 12, 2014. Credit: Michal Fattal
Zvi Zrahiya
Zvi Zrahiya

Election economics kept the Knesset Finance Committee busy again on Monday as lawmakers late on Sunday voted 12 million shekels ($3.1 million) most of it for organizations affiliated with the Haredi parties for teaching Torah.

The 12 million shekels will increase the total government grants to the organizations, which include the Shas Party’s El Hama’ayan and United Torah Judaism’s Toda’ah group, by two thirds to 30 million shekels.

Although the vote came amid heavy pressure by the two Haredi lawmakers – Moshe Gafni (UTJ) and Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) — Finance Ministry representatives said the extra budget was needed to avoid forcing the organizations to lay off staff after they ran out of money.

The request for the appropriation came at the request of the treasury, which has been headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since he forced out Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party from the coalition last month, ushering in early elections.

The vote came hours after a boisterous debate Sunday over approving a 12.8 million-shekel grant to building a visitors center in the West Bank’s Barkan Industrial Zone, with opposition MKs accusing the Netanyahu-led treasury of playing politics. For the Haredi vote, however, few MKs were in attendance.

“Netanyahu is helping out the Haredim and the settlers to win their support in the event he forms a coalition after the elections,” said one Knesset source, who asked not to be named.

Netanyahu’s short-lived coalition excluded the ultra-Orthodox parties, but the prime minster is believed to be intent on bringing them into the next government, regarding them as easier partners than center-left parties like Yesh Atid. Netanyahu tried to replace Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah with Haredi partners but another coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, vetoed the plan.

MK Ya’acov Litzman (UTJ) defended the 12 million-shekel appropriation. “We needed to allocate the money to Torah institutions, whose budgets have been cut, because otherwise hundreds of people would have been fired. Both the attorney general and the speaker of the Knesset acknowledged this need to transfer the money,” he said.

Since Yesh Atid and Hatnuah were pushed out of the coalition, the government has only been able to muster a majority with the help of Shas and UTJ, although both parties are officially in the opposition. Thus Haredi MKs supported the 12.8 million shekels for the Barkan visitors center even though the attorney general has yet to approve the allocation.

Last week, Haredi lawmakers also supported a 1 billion-shekel increase in the defense budget and transferring money to West Bank settlements.

“We’re talking about corruption allocation of funds, which are being handed over in exchange for support of the Haredi parties of the coalition,” said Uri Regev, director of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious freedom and equality. “In addition we’re talking about an advance payment of billions that the Haredi parties plan to demand before [the Knesset] approves the next budget.”

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