Kahlon again threatens to exit coalition if budget not passed by Passover

Kulanu head says Israelis will sit down to holiday meal without a finance minister if ultra-Orthodox hold up budget over military draft bill feud

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon leads a faction meeting of his Kulanu party at the Knesset on March 5, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon leads a faction meeting of his Kulanu party at the Knesset on March 5, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon threatened to steer his Kulanu party lawmakers out of the coalition and resign from the treasury if the 2019 budget was not approved before the Knesset breaks for the Jewish holiday of Passover later this month.

“If the budget isn’t passed before Passover, I’ll recommend to my [party] members to quit the government,” Kahlon, who heads the Kulanu party, said at a press conference in Tel Aviv. “The Israeli nation will sit down to the Seder with a budget — or without a finance minister.”

Should Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which has 10 Knesset seats, pull out of the coalition, it would dissolve the government and bring the country to early elections.

Kahlon’s threat comes as ultra-Orthodox parties have threatened to vote down the budget — and in effect likely topple the government — if legislation exempting their community from military service isn’t passed first.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni on Tuesday swiftly dismissed Kahlon’s ultimatum.

“Then there’ll be a Seder without the finance minister,” he said at a Knesset committee meeting.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni chairs a Knesset Finance Committee on March 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The 2019 state budget can technically be passed until the end of the year, but Kahlon, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been adamant that it be passed earlier, before a six-week Knesset recess beginning March 18.

The ultra-Orthodox parties’ insistence on passing a military conscription bill is strongly opposed by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said Monday his party would not fold in the face of demands of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

At issue is the form that new military draft legislation will take, after the High Court of Justice in September threw out a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, on the grounds that it undermined the principle of equality before the law.

The government has until September to re-legislate the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, with Haredi lawmakers pushing two parallel bills that would force the state to recognize long-term Torah study as a form of service, and the Defense Ministry hammering out its own version of the legislation.

With the coalition at loggerheads over the draft legislation, there has been growing conjecture about the possibility of early elections.

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Monday after meeting US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu dismissed speculation he would use the coalition fight as a pretext to call fresh elections amid his mounting legal woes, saying he and his chief of staff Yoav Horowitz have been working to defuse the crisis.

“There is a clash here between the different partners that doesn’t allow for a solution,” said Netanyahu, according to the Walla news site. “I want to arrive at an agreement that will allow the government to finish its term.”

“At the moment, I cannot announce that [an agreement] is within reach,” admitted the prime minister.

Sources close to Netanyahu told the Haaretz daily that Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a leader of United Torah Judaism, was making it increasingly difficult to reach a solution due to his intransigence on the matter.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid the stalemate over the draft exemption legislation, there was mounting speculation that Netanyahu could seek a snap vote to secure his reelection, preempting an indictment on corruption charges. Elections are currently scheduled to be held in November 2019.

Adding to the prime minister’s troubles, police announced Monday that former Netanyahu adviser Nir Hefetz had agreed to turn state’s witness in the Bezeq corruption case.

The investigation, known as Case 4000, involves suspicions Netanyahu advanced regulations benefiting Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage at Bezeq’s Walla news site.

Officials told Hadashot TV news on Friday that suspicions against Netanyahu in the Case 4000 investigation are more serious than the accusations in two earlier cases, 1000 and 2000, in which police have recommended he be indicted for fraud, breach of trust, and bribery.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, amounting to some NIS 1 million ($282,000) worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer in return for certain benefits.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in all of the cases.

Marissa Newman contributed to this report.

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