Israel's Finance Minister Delays Aid to NGOs to Keep Funds From Asylum Seekers

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Finance Minister Yisrael Katz at the Finance Minister, Jerusalem, July 1, 2020
Finance Minister Yisrael Katz at the Finance Minister, Jerusalem, July 1, 2020Credit: Emil Salman
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Finance Minister Yisrael Katz has delayed approval of the government’s corornavirus grants to nongovernmental organizations that help the most vulnerable groups in Israeli society to prevent the funds from reaching asylum seekers, government sources have confirmed.

A total of 53 million shekels ($15.4 million) has been earmarked to aid some 23 NGOs that help the poor, the homeless, Holocaust survivors, victims of sexual assault and other groups – including asylum seekers and refugees.

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Katz made the decision after activists supporting the deportation of asylum seekers, along with Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, objected to having the money distributed to organizations that help asylum seekers and refugees.

Katz wrote to his ministry’s legal adviser, Asi Messing, that there were concerns that some of the organizations due to receive the aid “Conduct activities that are contrary to the values and policy of the government,” and asked that distribution of the grants be delayed to reexamine the program. The issue is expected to discussed on Sunday.

Government officials told Haaretz that Katz probably did not have the authority to interfere with the program, which had been approved by all the government ministries involved.

The grants were first made public on Tuesday when the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry and the Finance Ministry announced that NGOs were entitled to receive money from the fund supporting businesses that lost more than 25 percent of their revenues.

The announcement said the grant would be between 10,000 and 400,000 shekels, with a quarter of the funding for the program coming from philanthropic groups. The criteria for its distribution were formulated over a two-month period by the finance and social services ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Sheffi Paz during a protest against asylum seekers in South Tel Aviv, October 27, 2019Credit: Ofer Vaknin

According to the ministries, the money is to be distributed to nongovernmental groups that help people in need “Due to age, health, family or personal situation, physical, psychological, cognitive or developmental disability, low socioeconomic status or for humanitarian reasons.”

“It is unforgivable and unacceptable to try to penalize Holocaust survivors, the disabled and the elderly for political purposes, certainly not at this time,” a government official said. “If the minister is frightened by a little tweet, how will he manage an economy in crisis?”

The official was referring to what Yair Netanyahu tweeted on Tuesday in response to an article announcing the aid: “Great! Now it’s not just the German taxpayer funding the anarchist organizations set to destroy Israel, but also the Israeli taxpayer.”

The same day the pro-settler website Arutz Sheva published an article stating that “Leftist organizations that assist illegal infiltrators will also get on the list of grant recipients.” The article quoted a response from anti-asylum seeker activist Sheffi Paz, who was outraged that organizations assisting asylum seekers may also receive funds: “I asked people to send messages to the minister and tell him what they think about the State of Israel embracing infiltrators… We want to show him that his base doesn’t accept this.”

The article had a response from the finance minister’s office that the list of organizations entitled to assistance was formulated by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Joint Distribution Committee and the Social Affairs Ministry, and was simply passed on to the minister for his signature. The statement went on to say: “In light of the claim that organizations working against the interests of the State of Israel are included on the list, [the minister] ordered that approval immediately be suspended to examine whether there are not anti-Israeli groups on the list.”

Sources familiar with the issue said that a draft of the criteria for aid distribution was made public on June 10, with two weeks given for responses. According to government ministries, objections were voiced and there were corrections that had nothing to do with asylum seekers. “Why is the public given [time to submit] objections if everything is decided on Yair Netanyahu’s and Sheffi Paz’s Twitter feed?” said one source.

Lior Frenkel-Perl, the executive director of the umbrella organization of NGOs in Israel, told Haaretz that the first wave of the coronavirus had brought such groups to the brink of collapse. “This is the first significant assistance designated to help a very diverse, target population. Dispute over one clause or another shouldn’t postpone approval and delay support for social service organizations to their target groups, who are in desperate need.”

In response to this report, the Social Affairs Ministry said the program was meant to assist nongovernmental organizations providing social services during the coronavirus crisis and invited groups that met the criteria to apply, saying “Every application will be examined by a joint committee that will make its decision according to professional and relevant considerations.” The ministry added that it was in constant communication with the Finance Ministry over the matter.

Katz’s office declined Haaretz’s request for a response.

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