Israel's next finance minister brings religion to the front of economic strategy

FILE PHOTO: Bezalel Smotrich the Israeli transportation minister arrives to attend a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem

By Steven Scheer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel's incoming finance minister has said his economic strategy will be infused with religious beliefs laid out in the Torah, predicting that this would help the country prosper.

Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, said that as finance minister he would delve deep into the inner workings of the economy. However, taking a step back, he said the Torah - the first five books of the Hebrew Bible - taught that obeying God brought prosperity.

He also suggested a shift in spending priorities for the incoming government, including a significantly increased budget for religious study.

Smotrich was tapped by prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu to serve as finance minister for two years. He will then be replaced by Aryeh Deri, who heads an ultra-Orthodox party.

Netanyahu on Thursday secured a parliamentary majority following a Nov. 1 election win, but has still to finalize the coalition agreements. Until he does, a caretaker government remains in office.

Smotrich is more known for his hardline politics than his economic views, which, according to his party's platform, are fiscally conservative.

He spoke about his approach in an interview with an ultra-Orthodox magazine, Mishpacha. Excerpts of the interview were broadcast by Israel's Channel 12.

"They tried many economic theories, right? They tried capitalism, they tried socialism. There is one thing they didn't try: 'if you obey'," Smotrich said, referring to Jewish scripture that calls on people to follow God's will.

Smotrich said those of faith, himself included, believed that "the more Israel promotes more Torah, more Judaism, more of the commandment to settle the land, more kindness and solidarity, then the Lord will grant us great abundance".

A spokesman for Smotrich confirmed the comments.

In a separate interview with religious news website Kikar Hashabat, Smotrich said he expected the new government would bring new priorities, adding that state financing of religious seminaries would "grow significantly".

Instead of doing mandatory military service, many ultra-Orthodox men are given exemptions in order to study at religious schools, a point of contention among Israelis.

At the same time, only about half of ultra-Orthodox men work, according to government data. Many prefer to dedicate their time to Torah study.

Israel's central bank has said this is a drain on the economy and has recommended incentives to draw more ultra-Orthodox men into the workforce.

(Reporting by Steven ScheerAdditional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Editing by Angus MacSwan and Crispian Balmer)