Israel passes controversial pro-settler budget

The contentious budget will boost funds to ultraorthodox and pro-settler parties.

Hardline ultranationalist Jewish settlers march to the unauthorized settlement outpost Eviatar in the northern West Bank
Hardline ultranationalist Jewish settlers march to the unauthorised settlement outpost Eviatar in the northern West Bank [File: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo]

The Israeli government has passed a new two-year budget that solidifies the ruling coalition’s religious, pro-settlement agenda, as thousands of protesters demonstrated against the spending package outside the parliament building.

The 2023 and 2024 budgets passed in the early hours of Wednesday with a 64-56 vote – stalled by debates overnight and following weeks of negotiations.

The budgets stand at 484 billion shekels ($131bn) for this year and 514 billion shekels ($139bn) for next year, according to a parliament statement after the vote.

“This budget is good for all the citizens of Israel,” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said in the statement.

“Left and right, religious, ultra-Orthodox and secular, Druze, Arabs. Simply all of Israel’s citizens,” he said, apparently addressing criticism of the budgets, saying that critics “want to topple the rightist Government, and, to this end, everything is kosher”.

Translation: We won the elections, we passed the budget, we’ll continue for four more years.

Netanyahu announced the passage of the budgets in an upbeat tweet promising that his coalition government would continue in the same vein.

The budget may bring stability to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition but will likely deepen divisions within Israel, as demonstrators protested its inflated allocations for ultraorthodox institutions at the expense of secular Israelis.

Tens of millions of dollars have been set aside for extreme pro-settler parties.

On Monday, a major obstacle in passing the budget was settled, with a promise of $68m made to the far-right party Otzma Yehudit for its settler developments in the Negev and the Galilee regions, the Times of Israel reported.

Smotrich has said he hopes to double the number of West Bank settlers in the near future.

Settlements will receive funds from the newly-created “Arnuna Fund”, a mechanism in this year’s budget that aims to distribute municipal taxes, and which settlements will not have to pay into, Amnon Brownfield, the spokesperson for communist Knesset member Ofer Cassif, told Al Jazeera.

“The explanation is even more infuriating,” Brownfield said. “Justice department prohibited allocating funds from the settlements as it contradicts [international] law, but allowed allocating funds to them even though it is also prohibited.”

He added that settlements will also see increased budgets in a number of areas, including roads and infrastructure, tourism and agriculture.

The budget will also increase funds for ultraorthodox men to study full-time in religious seminaries, forgoing the requirement of working or serving in the military, which secular males are obligated to do. Ultraorthodox schools will also receive more money.

The new budget’s allocation of nearly $4bn in discretionary funds to ultraorthodox and pro-settler parties has even been criticised by the government’s own budget division.

Centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid denounced the budget as “a breach of contract with Israel’s citizens, which all of us – and our children and children’s children – will yet pay for”, Reuters news agency reported.

Tuesday night’s demonstrations against the budget took place after months of sustained protests against Netanyahu’s proposed amendment of the country’s judicial system, with people accusing the government of “looting” state funds.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies