Yeshiva Funding Crisis Could Prevent Fourth Israeli Election

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Yeshiva students in Jerusalem protesting against the arrest of a student who refused the army draft, Jerusalem, February 3, 2020.
Yeshiva students protesting against the arrest of a student who refused the army draft, Jerusalem, February 3, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

State funding for yeshivas is expected to run out in mid-2020, which means the ultra-Orthodox parties will most likely work with all their might to prevent a fourth election, political sources said.

Providing additional funding to the yeshivas would require passing a new state budget, which won’t be possible if next month’s election – like the two that preceded it – fails to end with anyone forming a government.

Last year, the state funded yeshivas to the tune of 1.2 billion shekels ($350 million), of which 960 million shekels were part of the regular budget and another 240 million were added under coalition agreements. But because of the ongoing political crisis, the state has been operating without a budget since the start of the year.

As a result, the yeshivas can only be paid advances on what they might be expected to get once a new budget is passed. In practice, this means that every month, they have been getting one-twelfth of a much lower total than last year – 840 million shekels.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month that his United Torah Judaism party can’t accept a situation in which yeshiva funding is being slashed by about one third. If no solution is found, he threatened, he will have to quit the government.

During subsequent negotiations, the two ultra-Orthodox parties, UTJ and Shas, reached an agreement with the Finance Ministry’s accountant general, Rony Hizkiyahu, under which the monthly advances will be increased so that yeshivas don’t have to slash their own budgets. However, the total amount of state funding for yeshivas will remain unchanged. Thus unless a budget for 2020 is passed in the next few months, this state funding will run out in June, forcing yeshivas to cut expenses suddenly and sharply.

Netanyahu has tried to find a solution to this crisis in recent weeks, but to no avail.

This accounting trick of frontloading the advances has political consequences as well. According to the polls, the two main electoral blocs remain virtually tied, just as they were after September’s election. In September, however, the ultra-Orthodox parties supported Netanyahu to the hilt, refusing even to negotiate with his rival, Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz, despite the fact that this made it necessary to hold a third election.

But this time, when another election would mean plunging the yeshivas into a severe financial crisis, it’s hard to see them sticking with Netanyahu at the price of a fourth election. Even if they don’t actually join a Gantz-led coalition, the fact that Netanyahu can no longer count on their loyalty means he would enter negotiations with Gantz on a unity government from an inferior position that would force him to make compromises.

“Netanyahu knows this,” a senior official who has been involved in the issue said. “The ultra-Orthodox parties won’t go with Gantz, but they also won’t rush to be dragged into another election. The [rightist] bloc is finished. If there’s another tie, they’ll have to find a solution.”

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