Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Sunday agreed to release millions of shekels budgeted for Arab municipalities that he had previously frozen.
Smotrich made the announcement at the end of a five-hour meeting with the leaders of 13 Arab municipalities, the director of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the interior minister.
The funds will be transferred in a few weeks provided that oversight mechanisms are in place to make sure the money doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
The Finance Ministry will transfer the budget, totaling NIS 200 million (~$53 million), to the Interior Ministry, which will establish a mechanism for the distribution of the funds.
Less than three months ago, Smotrich declared he wouldn’t transfer the money, citing among other concerns his fear that it would end up in the hands of criminal organizations.
Smotrich had previously explained that the budgets “often go to criminal and terrorist organizations,” which dominate the bidding process for projects in Arab areas. “As you no doubt know, so far there is no mechanism in place to track these bids,” he said.
“Tenders for garbage removal, gardening, transportation, etc., which originate from the current authorities’ budgets, are carried out by the authorities themselves, and as mentioned, too often end up in the hands of terrorist [and] criminal actors,” said Smotrich. “That harms the personal security of all of us, Jews and Arabs alike, depresses the economy in Arab society and deepens corruption.”
The finance minister also argued that the money was a kind of payout by the previous government to satisfy its coalition partner Mansour Abbas, chairman of Ra’am (United Arab List) Party, who sought to “bribe his voters in Arab society.”
“There are more urgent and important needs than continuing to transfer political funds for the Ra’am Party,” Smotrich said.
During a meeting of the Israeli Cabinet on Aug. 20, during which it approved a five-year, 3.2 billion shekel ($843 million) plan to invest in the (mostly Arab) residents of eastern Jerusalem, Smotrich, who had frozen and then released funds intended to help integrate eastern Jerusalem residents into Israeli universities, voiced similar concerns.
“We want to make sure that these budgets reach their intended destination and not for other purposes, whether criminal elements, involvement of terrorism, incitement and violence. The state closed its eyes on this matter. Now we are putting an end to it,” Smotrich said.