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Saturday, 04 April 2020

Israel's 'most vulnerable' hit by political stalemate

Core departments like the security services have remained funded but many other areas have suffered as Knesset fails to pass 2020 budget

AFP , Sunday 23 Feb 2020
Israel elections 2020
People walk on a bridge under an election campaign billboard for the Blue and White party, the opposition party led by Benny Gantz, left, in Ramat Gan, Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party is pictured at right. (Photo: AP)
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Israel's grinding political deadlock has squeezed funding for programmes helping troubled youths, disadvantaged communities and the disabled, forcing state-backed social organisations to rely on crowd-funding to get by.

Polls indicate the country's March 2 election, the third in less than a year, will not produce a clear win for right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his main rival Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party.

That result could force more fraught coalition talks, prolonging the stalemate that has kept lawmakers from passing a budget for this year.

But some analysts said the urgent need to approve a government spending package, especially for Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox political allies, could help break the logjam.

Former Bank of Israel governor Karnit Flug told AFP that a caretaker government without a majority in parliament, the Knesset, like the one currently led by Netanyahu, had no chance of passing a budget.

Core departments like the security services have remained funded but many other areas have suffered, added Flug, now a researcher at the Israeli Democracy Institute.

Flug said funds that were allocated to build hundreds of new classrooms to keep pace with Israel's rising population have been frozen.

Plans to improve services for the disabled, curb domestic violence and boost healthcare by sending more doctors to poorer communities have all been placed on hold, she added.

The lack of a 2020 budget "primarily affects the most vulnerable," Flug said.

Beyond cutbacks to government programmes, civil society organisations that rely on public funds to deliver social services are also facing a dire situation, she warned.

'Crazy Knesset members'

One such organisation is Maagalim, which supports around 8,000 at-risk youths through mentorships.

Maagalim head Assaf Weiss told AFP he had lost roughly three-quarters of his budget due to the political stalemate.

Founded 20 years ago, the organisation works with teenagers dealing with a troubled home life, violence in their communities, or a range of other challenges.

Weiss made clear that he was not willing to cut services because "some crazy members of the Knesset" were incapable of forming a government.

He wrote to the finance ministry arguing that Maagalim, and organisations like it, were Israel's "social Iron Dome" -- a reference to the military's missile shield that intercepts short-range rockets fired mainly from Gaza.

The ministry did not respond, but Weiss said Maagalim has maintained services through small, one-off donations from more than 2,500 individuals.

"It was an emergency crowd-funding campaign," that raised two million shekels ($872,000, 808,000 euros) in three weeks, Weiss said.

'Matter of life and death' 

Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving premier, has endured in office in part through alliances with parties representing the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, or haredi, who account for roughly 10 percent of the population.

Haredi institutions, which rely heavily on state funding, are receiving less money this year and could face a crunch if a budget is not passed.

For example, religious study institutions (Yeshivot) that cater to individuals over 18 are facing an estimated budget shortfall of $88 million for 2020, Gilad Malach, an expert on the ultra-Orthodox, told AFP.

For Chaim Levinson, a political commentator at Haaretz newspaper, that makes passing a budget "a matter of life and death" for haredi political leaders.

Speaking on Haaretz's podcast, Levinson argued that if the outcome of the vote risks extending the budget stalemate, haredi leaders "will take an active role in forcing Netanyahu to compromise, because they need money desperately.

"I don't think they will go with Gantz but I assume they will go to Netanyahu and say 'look, we must have a government,'" he added.

Malach was sceptical that ultra-Orthodox leaders would force Netanyahu's hand exclusively over the budget issue.

But, he said, despite their bond with the premier, certain haredi leaders could pivot to Blue and White if it served their financial and other interests.

If they fear being left out of the government, "they might join a coalition under Gantz," he said.

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