Five MKs Distribute NIS 40m of Taxpayer Funds to Favorite Causes

Five members of the Knesset Finance Committee recently decided to distribute NIS 40 million of government money to 50 causes and organizations through a secret fund whose recipients were chosen without open debate and without the knowledge of other institutions that may have wanted to apply for the funding.

The recipients include ultra-Orthodox health organizations, the Disengagement Administration (which oversees housing for settlers evacuated from Gaza in the 2005 pullout), and centers for the promotion of Jewish identity, and are generally in line with the political views of coalition parties.

The Knesset Finance Committee voted to approve the allocations, but only after the Finance Ministry buried them among dozens of other budget requests it submitted to the committee over the past week.

The committee as a whole was not involved in creating the list, which was drawn up by coalition chairman MK Zeev Elkin (Likud); Finance Committee chairman MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism); MK Zion Fanian (Likud), the committee's coalition coordinator; MK Amnon Cohen (Shas); and the sole opposition member of the group, MK Haim Oron (Meretz).

While a few Knesset members on the committee who are aware of the long-standing custom of such secretive public funding, like Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) and Jacob Edery (Kadima), sought financing from the fund on behalf of their favorite causes, other MKs are not even aware of its existence and have not been in a position to do so.

The fund was established some 20 years ago, with the suspension of "special allocations" that primarily benefited yeshivas and political organizations closely affiliated with the large political parties.

The Finance Ministry agreed that it would instead allocate NIS 40 million, to be dispersed at the discretion of the Finance Committee, on the condition that the money be used for social endeavors.

But under pressure from coalition members this year, some of the money has made its way to coalition members' pet causes that are of a more political nature.

For instance, NIS 1.2 million is going toward the "loan of medical equipment for severe diseases." Knesset sources said the funding will go to medical centers including Maayanei Hayeshua, in the mostly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Bnei Brak and Poriya Hospital in Tiberias - thereby benefiting members of Gafni's ultra-Orthodox constituency and residents of Fanian's hometown of Tiberias.

Oron allocated NIS 2 million for youth groups, and said the committee is helping causes that have enjoyed broad public support for years, enabling it to help social organizations that would otherwise have found it difficult to obtain state financing.

"Obviously," he added, "other organizations have other social agendas."