Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Finance Minister Yair Lapid Monday night in what was initially described as a last-ditch effort to salvage his coalition. However, a list of stiff demands presented by Netanyahu to Lapid during the meeting, along with a harsh statement issued by him afterward, indicated that Israel may well be headed for early elections.
Lapid said after the meeting that Netanyahu was dragging Israelis to the polls and disregarding their needs, also leaving little room for hope that new elections could be averted.
During the meeting in his Jerusalem office, Netanyahu told Lapid that “the government cannot be maintained in a reality where he [Lapid] and his party incessantly attack the government in which they themselves are members,” the Primes Minister’s Office said in a statement.
Netanyahu presented five demands to Lapid, the statement said, including that he “stop undermining and lashing out at the government of which he is a member,” specifically with regard to construction plans in Jerusalem and Israel’s relations with the United States, regarding which Lapid has aired public criticism.
The prime minister’s five-party governing coalition has been teetering on the brink of collapse amid bitter differences over the 2015 budget and the controversial “Jewish state” bill, which critics say discriminates against Israel’s Arab minority.
The prime minister also demanded that Lapid, as finance minister, transfer NIS 6 billion to the defense budget, and that he release the funds required by the military to finish relocating the majority of its training bases to the southern Negev region.
Lapid, Netanyahu continued, would have to toe the line when it came to the controversial “Jewish state” legislation and back that formulation of the bill as it is being drafted by the prime minister and his people. Lapid has said unequivocally that his party will not back the bill in its emerging form.
Finally, in a demand that will be very hard for Lapid to stomach, Netanyahu said that the finance minister would have to lay aside his affordable housing plan, which has met with criticism from economists. “With the NIS 3 billion that will be freed up annually [by scrapping that plan],” Netanyahu said, Lapid will be able to bring to bear “real housing solutions that will lower rather than raise the price of housing, like reducing the sales tax on basic food staples.”
“The citizens of Israel vested me with responsibility, and with the current government it is impossible to manage the country as the citizens of Israel expect that we do,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued shortly after the meeting. “If the unprecedented conduct of some of the cabinet ministers persists there will be no choice but to seek the voter’s trust once again.
“This isn’t the option that I favor, but a far worse option will be the continued existence of a cabinet whose ministers sabotage the government’s actions and policy against the public’s interest.”
Minutes after Netanyahu published his list of demands, Lapid said that the prime minister was “dragging Israel to unnecessary elections” with demands that were impossible to accept.
Netanyahu, Lapid charged, was acting “without consideration for the national interest” and placing “the needs of the Israeli public at the bottom of his list of priorities.”
“The demands by the prime minister to Yesh Atid reveal his political intentions,” Lapid said.
“Netanyahu prefers a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties to bring forward the elections above the interests of the wider Israeli public. The Israeli public now understands that at the head of the government is a prime minister who doesn’t carry out his promises, a prime minister who prefers his personal survival to their interests,” Lapid continued.
The Yesh Atid leader said he was committed “to continue fighting for the citizens of Israel and the public’s right to a socially aware budget with billions of shekels invested in education, health, welfare and internal security, without tax hikes and with a comprehensive housing plan for young couples.”
Earlier Monday, amid growing criticism of Netanyahu from several ministers in his coalition, the prime minster warned that unless the government could work together “harmoniously,” he would initiate elections for early next year, two years ahead of schedule.
During a Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu decried to MKs from his party the lack of coalition support for his policies, saying: “My diplomatic policies are constantly attacked, where even construction in Jerusalem becomes a controversial issue.”
He went on to accuse coalition members of trying to oust him, and told the MKs that although he was “reluctant” to call for early elections, he would do so if it was in Israel’s best interest.
“I have not received even the most basic obligation — the loyalty and responsibility of ministers to the government in which they serve,” Netanyahu said.
At a Yesh Atid Knesset faction meeting on Monday, Lapid warned that early elections would harm the economy and stall crucial legislation. He said that he believed the coalition could be salvaged and urged Netanyahu to leave political considerations out of his calculus.
“My only obligation is to the Israeli public. We don’t have ‘cronies,’ we don’t have ‘jobs’ to distribute and we don’t have central committee members who can pressure us. All we want is to work, with the entire government, for the citizens of the State of Israel,” Lapid said.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, another outspoken critic of Netanyahu’s “Jewish state” bill, told her Hatnua party members earlier Monday that “Netanyahu is right: It has to be one or the other. It’s wrong to go to elections while continuing to advance racist legislation and allowing extremists, some of whom are in the coalition, to have their way.”
Livni was scheduled to meet Netanyahu later Monday night.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.