Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday that funds marked for the use of Arab municipalities would be delivered, despite the decision of his finance minister to withhold them. "The Arab citizens of Israel deserve the same as every other citizen and I am committed to that," he said.
"The money will be transferred after proper steps are taken to ensure they reach their intended purpose," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement. "It is the policy of the government, under Netanyahu's leadership to bring prosperity and development to all Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike."
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich announced earlier this week that he had decided to withhold 314 million shekels that were promised to the Arab municipalities by the previous government, causing anger and pushback from politicians on both sides of the aisle. Some accused him of racism pointing to another decision he made, to withhold funds for preparatory courses for Arabs in East Jerusalem who hope to be admitted for studies at Hebrew University. In his explanation, Smotrich said he did not intend to fund students who would then promote incitement on campus.
On Wednesday, Smotrich said he would establish a special team for the "economic fight" against the crime wave in the Arab sector. "Despite the dishonest campaign waged against me, I will not allow the transfer of funds unless there are clear restrictions in place to prevent them from reaching crime gangs, and unless it becomes clear that they could not be used for incitement or for promoting terrorism." He said adding that crime families were able to get their hands, on municipal funds using violence and extortion and creating a web of shell companies and fictitious accounting.
In a press conference in Jerusalem, the minister addressed Arab citizens, claiming his decisions were in their interests. "You are the first to suffer," he told them, "when the money reaches criminals and terrorists."
The council of Arab municipal leaders denied the minister's allegations calling them slanderous lies. "Smotrich continues his campaign of incitement against the Arab community and its leader," they said adding that they are considering taking legal action.
The funds that were promised to then-coalition partner Mansour Abbas from the Islamist Ra'am Party were part of his coalition agreement with former prime minister Yair Lapid, to cover municipal costs and fund economic development.
In the criticism of the minister's decision, political allies joined opposition members and others, warning that much of the money has already been spent, by the municipalities who were relying on the funds to be delivered.