Under fire over coronavirus policy, Netanyahu announces money for all

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday a plan for government grants for all Israelis amid growing public anger over his handling of a coronavirus crisis that has taken a sharp turn for the worse.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem June 28, 2020. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Critics seized on the 6 billion shekel ($1.75 billion) handout package as a bid to boost the veteran leader’s popularity before a widely expected series of new lockdowns.

Payments will range between 750 shekels ($219) for individuals to up to 3,000 shekels ($875) for families with three or more children, Netanyahu said in a special TV address.

Now in his fifth term, Netanyahu is grappling with new coronavirus transmissions. He said in his television address that he was “doing the utmost” to avoid a new national lockdown and denied street protests had prompted the new aid package.

“Why are we giving this money? We have to get the economy moving,” Netanyahu said, calling on his coalition government to approve the payments. “This money will boost consumer spending and employment.”

The government reopened schools and many businesses in May, lifting restrictions that had flattened an infection curve. With new COVID-19 cases now exceeding 1,000 a day, some public health experts said it had moved too fast.

With unemployment at a record 21%, thousands of Israelis demanding economic relief demonstrated against Netanyahu on Saturday in Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem on Tuesday, police used water cannon on thousands of anti-Netanyahu demonstrators outside his home.

A poll by the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute on Tuesday found only 29.5% of the public trust Netanyahu’s handling of the health crisis.

Netanyahu’s new cash grant plan followed an announcement on Thursday of a new welfare package for the self-employed, in addition to a payout of $29 billion in aid previously pledged by the state.

Israel, with a population of nine million, has reported nearly 44,000 coronavirus cases and 375 deaths.

Editing by Nick Macfie