In a sign of rising political tensions amid widespread expectations that the country is entering an election year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon bickered with unusual intensity in front of fellow ministers in the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Netanyahu is working to advance a bill that would force labor unions to take part in an arbitration process with corporate management before they could legally declare a strike. The proposal is part of an already-approved reform of the Israel Electric Corporation that has seen a significant weakening of the IEC labor union’s power.
When Netanyahu asked that the relevant ministries draft the proposed “Mandatory Arbitration Bill,” the finance minister, whose ministry is one of those that would be pushing the bill, scoffed openly.
“You know this has no political support even in your own party,” said Kahlon, a former Likud cabinet minister who now leads the Kulanu party. “This is all talk. You’re prime minister for 10 years now and you haven’t done anything on this issue.”
Netanyahu shot back, “You’re right that we need a majority for this bill, so let’s start with you saying you support it.”
Kahlon replied, “Fine, bring something [i.e., a draft bill] and then we can talk.”
According to leaks from the closed-door meeting, Kahlon then charged that Netanyahu was “a theoretician, a philosopher. You talk and you let us go and do.”
He added: “Even if you have 20 more years as prime minister, you won’t pass any serious reforms.”
The question of looming elections dominated the meeting, according to insiders.
The most immediate threat to the coalition’s stability is a bill to draft ultra-Orthodox seminary students. The bill must be passed by September to fulfill a demand of the High Court of Justice, but has faced pro forma opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which, despite largely supporting the legislation in off-the-record conversations, have publicly come out against it.
Netanyahu said in the meeting he hopes the coalition weathers the draft bill crisis. “This is an excellent coalition,” he said, “and I’d like to keep it going almost to the end of the term.”
The draft bill passed its first of three plenum votes last week, and Netanyahu is expected to ask the High Court for an extension of several months to hammer out a compromise, especially since the September deadline will be almost impossible to keep, as the Knesset shuts down for its summer recess on July 19, returning for the fall session in October.
If the court grants the extension, as is expected, the coalition will likely remain intact for the intervening months. If the Knesset dissolves itself during the fall session, the mandatory three-month campaign season means no elections are likely before the spring of 2019.
If the 20th Knesset does not dissolve itself, the next elections will take place in November 2019. However, Israeli parliaments and governments rarely last their full terms, as coalition partners find reasons to squabble in the lead-up to election years as each party seeks to differentiate itself to the voters.
The looming political timetable also appeared to figure in Netanyahu urging his coalition partners on Sunday to back the Likud-led nation-state bill, which seeks to anchor in a quasi-constitutional basic law Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.
“This law is very important to us,” Netanyahu told ministers. “Just as there are bills that are important to you, and I respect that, you have to respect the importance this bill has for us.”
The bill is expected to come up for its final plenum votes a week from Monday. It passed its first reading in May.