Ultra-Orthodox parties counter Netanyahu’s early elections bid
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Ultra-Orthodox parties counter Netanyahu’s early elections bid

Heads of UTJ and Shas come out against disbanding coalition as PM, finance minister cross swords over new public broadcaster

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) speaks with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (l) at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) speaks with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (l) at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they oppose early elections and will do everything they can to oppose the dismantling of the government amid an ongoing coalition crisis.

At the opening of a coalition meeting on Sunday, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, along with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the Shas party, told the prime minister that they do not want him to hold early elections, according to Hebrew media reports.

In a subsequent public statement that distanced the ultra-Orthodox parties from any unilateral moves by Netanyahu to dissolve the government, the three said, “We will not agree to advance [the date of the elections], and we will have no hand in it.”

The last elections were held in March 2015 and the next elections are not scheduled for another two years.

Netanyahu has threatened to call early elections if the coalition refuses to cancel reforms advanced by his own Likud party that would shutter the Israel Broadcasting Authority and launch the replacement broadcaster, called “Kan,” by April 30.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on March 26, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on March 26, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Following the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu and Finance Minister Kahlon sat down together along with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who then left the two men to talk things through together. They met again Sunday evening, but an agreement remained elusive.

In a further push to avert elections, Gafni said later on Sunday that he was in favor of incorporating other political parties into Netanyahu’s coalition.

Chairman of the Finance committee Moshe Gafni leads a Finance committee meeting at the Knesset, the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Chairman of the Finance committee Moshe Gafni leads a Finance committee meeting at the Knesset, the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“If, in the current situation, they must add other parties to the coalition, we are in favor,” Gafni, the head of the Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, told Army Radio.

He said that expanding the coalition was “possible,” but that he didn’t anticipate an alternative coalition that would knock Netanyahu’s Likud out of power — as Isaac Herzog, who leads the opposition and the Zionist Union faction, has urged.

Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich hit back at Gafni, warning her opposition party against joining the coalition.

“I look at my party with love and concern and pray they won’t make more mistakes, because I think this would be a political blow from which it will never recover,” she told Army Radio.

Zionist Union parliament member Shelly Yachimovich at the Knesset. July 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zionist Union parliament member Shelly Yachimovich at the Knesset. July 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“What we are seeing here are whims and spin,” Economy Minister Eli Cohen, a member of the Kahlon-led Kulanu party, said Sunday.

“If (Netanyahu) decides to go to elections, we are confident that the public knows how to appreciate those who act responsibly and those who want to go to inexplicable elections,” he told Army Radio.

Over the weekend, coalition chair David Bitan of Netanyahu’s Likud party attacked Kahlon, saying the finance minister did not have his priorities straight.

“The treasury does not mind throwing away NIS 700 million [$192 million] every year on the [broadcasting] corporation, while the elderly and the handicapped are barely living on food benefits. The same treasury repeatedly rejects any initiative to raise the disability benefits, but greatly endeavors to protect a handful of rich kid snobs,” Bitan said.

Netanyahu is widely believed to be opposed to the new body because he perceives it as being too left-wing. Netanyahu has long complained of a media hostile to him.

The long-simmering crisis escalated last week when Netanyahu backtracked on an agreement with Kahlon to launch the new public broadcasting corporation — set up through a law passed by his previous government in 2014 and slated to replace the old Israel Broadcasting Authority.

If Kahlon refused to scrap the new broadcaster, “we’ll go to elections,” Netanyahu was reported to have told Likud ministers at his home last Saturday.

Kahlon disagreed with nixing the new corporation, saying such a move would waste massive funds.

Other coalition members have balked at the idea of going to elections, with Deri saying last week that such a move would be “unforgivable” and that Netanyahu and coalition leaders would work to defuse the coalition crisis when the prime minister returned from China.

Netanyahu returned on Thursday, but was reportedly too sick to meet with coalition leaders to resolve the conflict until Sunday.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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