Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of attempting to deflect public anger around his handling of Israel’s pandemic and an ongoing corruption trial by proposing a cash handout to all Israelis regardless of their income.
The Israeli prime minister presented the 6bn shekel (£1.4bn) package on Wednesday night, with payments of up to £175 for individuals, rising to nearly £700 for families, arguing it would boost spending and “get the economy moving faster”.
The plan, which needs cabinet approval, was swiftly rejected on Thursday by senior officials, including government ministers, who said the money should instead be targeted at the poorest citizens.
The Bank of Israel governor, Amir Yaron, told local radio that there were “more effective ways” to encourage consumer spending. The foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, from the former opposition Blue and White party, said the money should instead go “to those who are hurting and not to those who don’t need it”.
More than one in five Israelis are unemployed and, despite a separate £20bn aid package, many businesses say they will not survive the pandemic. Israel’s economy is set to contract 6% in 2020.
Netanyahu faces fresh discontent as the country grapples with the recent surge in Covid-19 cases. Thousands of protesters have held demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the past week, and more protests are planned for Saturday night.
Ministers on Thursday will discuss fresh restrictions to tackle an aggressive “second wave” of coronavirus infections, after more than 1,900 new cases were reported in 24 hours – a domestic record. The health minister, Yuli Edelstein, has said the country needs a “medical miracle” to prevent a lockdown, which would further damage the economy.
The prominent columnist Ben Caspit, writing in the Maariv newspaper, said Netanyahu’s proposal was the equivalent of “handing out bribes to the masses”.
He accused the country’s longest-serving leader of “showering six billion shekels that we don’t have on the heads of hundreds of thousands of families that don’t need the money.
“Israel is soon going to find itself facing a half-trillion shekel cumulative deficit. Our children and their great-grandchildren are going to have to pay that back with compound interest. But hey, the demonstration next Saturday night might get called off!”
While Netanyahu’s government was initially praised for a swift lockdown in March, officials have attributed the recent rise in infections to an overenthusiastic reopening of the country.
Two national television polls released on Sunday found more than three in four of Israelis were dissatisfied with the prime minister’s handling of the crisis. Israel, with a population of nine million, has reported about 44,000 coronavirus cases and 380 deaths.
The Israeli leader is also fighting three corruption allegations, including charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, alleging he is the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt. His next hearing is on Sunday, although Netanyahu is not expected to attend.