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Israeli budget vote could give Netanyahu stability after rocky start to term

JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on Tuesday prepared to pass a new budget — a step that could bring some stability to his coalition after a rocky start and clear the way for it to press ahead with its religious, pro-settlement agenda.

While the expected passage of the budget could buy Netanyahu some quiet inside the coalition, it also was expected to deepen the divisions in Israel. Critics have accused Netanyahu of increasing spending on his ultra-Orthodox allies for religious programs that have little benefit for the economy and broader society.

Ahead of the late-night vote, Netanyahu rejected the criticism.

“We are passing a reasonable budget, a budget that stays in bounds,” he said. “To our colleagues in the opposition: don’t get your hopes up. This government will last its full four years.”

The government faces a May 29 deadline to pass the budget or be forced into a new round of elections. The vote, scheduled for late Tuesday or early Wednesday, would approve a budget through 2024, giving Netanyahu up to two years of quiet after weeks of tense negotiations with his coalition partners.

“It’s a very important moment,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who is now president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. “It gives Netanyahu a reasonable projection for stability for the upcoming months, and perhaps year and a half.”

Netanyahu formed the coalition, a collection of ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties, last year after the country’s fifth election in under four years. That election, like its predecessors, was largely a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to rule while facing corruption charges.

The government took office in late December and almost immediately found itself mired in controversy, both at home and with its allies abroad.

A plan to overhaul the country’s judicial system has triggered months of mass protests and raised concerns overseas. Proponents say the measures are needed to rein in an overzealous Supreme Court, but critics say the plan would destroy the country’s system of checks and balances.

Meanwhile, the coalition’s commitment to expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem have angered allies. Most of the international community, including the United States, say the settlements are obstacles to peace. The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — captured by Israel in 1967 — for a future state.

The new budget has been criticized for allocating nearly $4 billion in discretionary funds, much of it for ultra-Orthodox and pro-settler parties.

That will include increases in controversial stipends for ultra-Orthodox men to study full time in religious seminaries instead of working or serving in the military, which is compulsory for most secular males.

It also includes more money for ultra-Orthodox schools, which are widely criticized for not teaching students skills like math and English needed in the modern workplace.

The funds also include tens of millions of dollars for hard-line pro-settler parties to promote pet projects through the ministries they control.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader, has said he hopes to double the population of West Bank settlers in the coming years.

The government’s composition and agenda have deeply divided the country. On Tuesday, several thousand flag-waving Israelis protested outside the parliament building against the budget.

“The budget is not allocated for building bridges, or building schools, or supporting higher education,” said Evyatar Erell, a protester. “It is devoted entirely for purposes that will serve nothing at all to promote the growth and development of Israel in the future.”

Scores of prominent economists this week signed a letter warning that the budget will cause “significant and long-term damage” to the economy by including incentives for the ultra-Orthodox to avoid the work force.

“The budget that the government is raising today is devastating,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said on Twitter. “There is no reform that will improve the state of the economy, there are no engines of growth, there is no fight against the cost of living, there is only endless extortion.”

While Tuesday’s vote buys Netanyahu some quiet, that may be short lived.

The mass protests led Netanyahu to put the judicial overhaul plan on hold. But he could now face pressure from his partners to revive the plan.

If Netanyahu moves forward with it, he could once again see his poll numbers slip and come under pressure from within his ruling Likud Party to cancel it. But if he calls off the plan, the hard-line partners who have spearheaded the plan could threaten to leave the coalition.

Josef Federman, The Associated Press