Bennett slams Kahlon for soaring deficit as coalition partners spar

Bennett slams Kahlon for soaring deficit as coalition partners spar

Jewish Home chair says finance minister ‘pulling left,’ blames him for ‘very dangerous’ economic forecast

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (right) and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a press conference at the Education Ministry in Tel Aviv, March 19, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (right) and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a press conference at the Education Ministry in Tel Aviv, March 19, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Government ministers bickered over defense policy and the national deficit Sunday, as political leaders attempted to score points and win new voters ahead of widely expected early elections.

Amid an ongoing rift with the Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett waded into a fresh public spat with another of his coalition partners, slamming Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon for “pulling leftwards” and blaming him as well for the recently announced soaring budget deficit.

“We on the right in the Jewish Home are pulling to the right — Kahlon and Liberman are pulling leftwards,” Bennett told Radio Darom on Sunday morning when asked about the Kulanu chairman’s reported veiled criticism of him last week.

The Finance Ministry announced last Monday that there was a NIS 9 billion ($2.4 billion) deficit in the state budget, approximately 3.6 percent of the GDP, the highest rate in years and almost 1% more than the 2.5% cumulative deficit in September.

Following the announcement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting with the ministry’s director general to discuss the effect of the deficit on budget projections.

Kahlon, who has pushed through a number of popular tax abatements aimed at lowering the country’s high cost of living, had defended his record in the treasury following October’s disappointing deficit figures, saying that “the economy is the most stable thing in the country right now,” according to Hebrew media reports.

He recommended that “people should be concerned about the public discourse and attacks on [Israel’s] gatekeepers and democracy before the economy.”

Kahlon’s comments were an apparent reference to Jewish Home calls for Deputy Attorney General Dana Zilber to be fired for criticizing the so-called “Loyalty in Culture” bill during a Knesset committee meeting earlier this week.

Zilber also condemned the current political climate in Israel and accused lawmakers from the right-wing coalition of seeking to minimize dissenting opinions.

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber speaks at a Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee meeting on the proposed “Loyalty in Culture” bill, which will limit state financial support for art deemed antithetical to the state’s interests, at the Knesset on November 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Speaking last week at a meeting of the Knesset Education, Culture, and Sports Committee, Zilber said the legislation, which threatens to strip state funding from cultural institutions that produce art seen as overly critical of the government or the state, “poses real difficulties.”

Charging that Kahlon’s criticism was just the latest example of his “left wing leaning,” Bennett said that “the public is getting tired of voting right and getting the left.”

“I hope we [on the right] will be much stronger after the next elections,” Bennett said in an ominous warning to Kahlon.

The Jewish Home chairman added that, as opposed to Kahlon’s assessment, the new economic markers were “very dangerous” for Israel and that “before elections, it is difficult to withstand public pressure, especially in economic matters.”

“The last thing I want is to leave our children with deficits that they will have to repay because of irresponsible behavior,” Bennett said. “The person responsible for the budget is, obviously, the finance minister.”

Bennett’s comments against Liberman came after the defense minister said that his cabinet colleague was “either suffering from memory loss, or is just lying,” when he criticized the transfer of Qatari funds to Hamas.

Liberman said Bennett had in fact supported the transfer of money as well as the supply of Qatari fuel to the coastal enclave, and was in favor of a proposal to allow 5,000 workers from Gaza to enter Israel, as well as opposing military action against Hamas.

A Palestinian man shows his money after receiving his salary in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018 (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

On Friday, $15 million in Qatari cash entered the Gaza Strip in several suitcases to pay the salaries of Palestinian civil servants in Gaza in a bid to ease tensions in and around the impoverished territory.

A total of $90 million is to be distributed in six monthly installments of $15 million, according to authorities, primarily to cover salaries of officials working for Hamas. Qatar has also said it would hand out $100 to each of 50,000 families in poverty, as well as larger sums to Palestinians wounded in clashes along Gaza’s border with Israel.

Bennett and Liberman have traded barbs several times in recent weeks. Bennett’s religious-nationalist Jewish Home party will battle with Liberman’s secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu over the votes of many hawkish Israelis in the upcoming Knesset elections.

Elections must take place by November 2019 but some predict they will be called earlier.

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