Israel's Finance Minister Can't Block Funding to Aid Asylum Seekers, Attorney General Rules

Yisrael Katz had ordered the funding suspended following an outcry from activists opposed to the presence of foreign migrants in south Tel Aviv, but government aid to NGOs expected to go ahead

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Finance Minister Yisrael Katz
Finance Minister Yisrael KatzCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

The office of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the legal adviser at the Finance Ministry have ruled that Finance Minister Yisrael Katz does not have the authority to halt government funding that had been earmarked for nonprofit organizations affected by the coronavirus crisis.

As reported by Haaretz, Katz had suspended the transfer of the funds so that the portion of the proceeds designated for the social service needs of asylum seekers would not be paid out to organizations that provide them services. Katz ordered the suspension in the wake of criticism from neighborhood activists who are working to remove asylum seekers from south Tel Aviv, in addition to objections voiced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair.

Social Services Minister Itzik Shmuli, rather than the finance minister, has authority over the funding, and on Wednesday, Katz approached Shmuli asking that he halt the funding. The Social Services Ministry has no intention of acceding to the request, however, and the funds are expected to be transferred to the nonprofits shortly.

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The plan to provide funding to the nonprofits is intended to bolster support for organizations that help the underprivileged, including homeless people, Holocaust survivors and victims of sexual assault. A total of 53 million shekels ($15.5 million) has been allocated to the program for nonprofits that have met specific criteria, including standards largely set by the Social Services Ministry.

Last week, Katz informed his ministry’s legal adviser, Asi Messing, that he had ordered the funding suspended after he understood that there was concern that some of the nonprofit groups were “conducting activities that are contrary to the values and policies of the state.” On Wednesday, however, Messing ruled that Katz does not have the authority to change the funding criteria, which had already been made public, and that the power to set the criteria is vested in Social Services Minister Shmuli.

Social Services Minister Itzik ShmuliCredit: Adina Wolman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office

“At this point, many institutions have begun the process of submitting requests for funding,” Messing wrote, and any changes to the criteria would affect all of the groups that would qualify for the program, which as a practical matter might also result in unequal treatment of possible recipient organizations.

Katz appealed to Shmuli to eliminate funding to nonprofits that provide assistance to migrants who have come to Israel in search of work, whom he described as “work infiltrators,” although his legal adviser had made it clear that any change in the criteria would affect all participating nonprofit organizations. Sources at the Social Services Ministry told Haaretz that the funding process is proceeding based on the original criteria.

A group of Knesset members also sought a ruling by Attorney General Mendelblit that Katz cannot intervene in the matter. In response Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber backed Messing’s stance. “A minister does not have the authority to rescind or change a set of criteria for obtaining support that was set by another cabinet member,” she wrote. The criteria were set with input from a number of government ministries, including the Finance Ministry, along with representatives of various philanthropic organizations and civil society organizations, she noted.

“It was decided to provide this aid based on criteria laid out by the Social Services Ministry and reflecting its policies, to help social organizations that are not benefiting from the aid package given to small businesses and to bolster civil society following this crisis, with the understanding that helping these target groups fulfills a diverse range of public interests,” Zilber stated. The criteria, she said, were designed to provide assistance in a “uniform and equitable” manner to all qualifying recipient groups and “all target populations,” including asylum seekers and refugees.

The appeal to the attorney general was initiated by Joint List Knesset member Ofer Cassif following the earlier reporting on the issue by Haaretz. “The attempt to withhold funds based on racist considerations is shameful and despicable, and it’s good that it was quickly stopped,” Cassif said. He called on Katz and the cabinet to ensure that the funds are quickly provided.

Asylum seekers in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Also on Thursday, the representative in Israel for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sent Katz a letter calling on Israel to protect asylum seekers, particularly during the current severe economic crisis that has left many of them unemployed and without governmental benefits.

In the letter, the local UNHCR representative, Damtew Dessalegne, stated that many asylum seekers who had been able to sustain themselves prior to the coronavirus crisis are now in a dire situation and lack help from the authorities. The work of civil society organizations can't be enough, Dessalegne wrote, and the government must step in and do more to help asylum seekers with basic services.

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