Smotrich on the Loose


We hoped that political tensions in Israel would ease during the Knesset’s summer recess. But Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich couldn’t leave bad enough alone.

Early last week, Smotrich stirred up a hornet’s nest when he announced a freeze of some $670 million that had been designated to fund Arab towns and Palestinian education programming in East Jerusalem, including more than $50 million for Hebrew University’s program for Arab integration in academia and higher education.

Smotrich, a right-wing extremist, cited crime and safety fears as the reason. In Smotrich’s words, the freeze was necessary because “nationalist extremism is unfortunately expanding in segments of Arab society in Israel, including within the universities through radical Islamic cells that incite violence and terrorism, fighting IDF soldiers and sympathizing with the enemy in times of war.” He also claimed that some of the budgeted funds were a political payoff by the previous government that could end up in the hands of “criminals and terrorists.”

Reaction to the announcement was swift and direct. MK Mansour Abbas, who heads the United Arab List, and opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, both accused Smotrich of racism and said he was trying to punish Israeli Arab citizens simply because they are Arab.

Local Arab leaders warned that the freeze would make it impossible for local area councils to provide basic services such as garbage collection or the reopening of schools after the summer holiday. Even some members of Israel’s Smotrich-allied ruling coalition were critical of the announced freeze, including Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chickli and Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel — both of the Likud Party.

In response, Smotrich backed away and announced the creation of a task force “to analyze and approve” the allocation of funds to Arab municipalities, promising that “the Arab sector is an inseparable part of Israel. It needs the best services as Israeli citizens, and that is what this government will give them.”

Shortly after Smotrich’s backtrack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that all of the funds would be released after a review and reiterated that “Israel’s Arab citizens deserve what all citizens do, and I’m committed to this.” Then, in what appeared to be a slap at Smotrich, Netanyahu went on to say: “I demand this of all government ministries, and it will be carried out following an evaluation to ensure that funds are transferred for their designated purpose.”

We wonder what Smotrich was thinking when he made his initial freeze of funds announcement and laid out his provocative accusations. Arab leaders saw it as continued incitement by the right-wing idealogue against Arab society and its leaders. Some of Smotrich’s coalition allies questioned whether he had the authority to undo an allocation approved by the previous government.

What we see is that Smotrich has not fully internalized the difference between his campaign for office last year — where he drew attention and popularity from his extreme rhetoric — and the realities of his responsibilities as the country’s finance minister. In the former, he pandered to his right-wing base. In the latter, his responsibility is to all people of Israel, including its Arab citizens.

Maybe now he knows. ■

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