Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was eager for early elections in order to realize “a deal with the ultra-Orthodox,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid charged on Tuesday.
The attack from Lapid, in a speech at an energy industry conference, was an early salvo in what is shaping up to be a bitter battle between the politicians as an end to the ruling coalition becomes all but certain.
Speaking in Tel Aviv, the finance minister accused Netanyahu of attempting “a fire sale of the universal draft law, of the reduction in budgets for yeshivas, of the introduction of the core curriculum into ultra-Orthodox education — all of which were aimed at preventing an entire generation of ultra-Orthodox people from living a life of poverty.”
The rhetoric comes after Likud sources said the party would formally support a bill to dissolve the Knesset and go to elections in a preliminary vote in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday.
The universal draft law refers to legislation that would force the ultra-Orthodox into mandatory military or national service, a move long sought by Lapid and other secular politicians.
The third Netanyahu government has been beset by infighting from its very start 20 months ago. Tensions boiled over in the latest fight over the budget and the “Jewish state” bill, which the prime minister has vowed to advance despite vociferous objections by Lapid and Hatnua leader Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
At a meeting between Lapid and Netanyahu Monday night, Netanyahu insisted that Lapid accept five demands, including the transfer of billions of shekels in added funds for the Israel Defense Forces and the cancellation of Lapid’s flagship and controversial affordable housing program. Lapid refused, and the tense meeting ended with both sides announcing that the other had forced “unnecessary” elections on the country.
His centrist party’s “list of achievements is long,” Yesh Atid leader Lapid insisted on Tuesday. “Despite all the obstacles, we have achieved more in a year and eight months than other parties have achieved in decades.” Yesh Atid, made up mostly of freshman politicians like Lapid, swept into the Knesset for the first time in the January 2013 elections, winning 19 seats and placing itself as a linchpin of any governing coalition.
And in an explicit reference to the upcoming elections, Lapid pitted his own agenda against that of the ultra-Orthodox parties. “The Israeli public will have to decide where it wants to go. Does the public want, as MK [Yaakov] Litzman from United Torah Judaism said, ‘to turn back the clock,’ or does it want to continue on the path we have started – to clean up the country, to change the country, to return the country to the hands of its citizens,” he said.
As the country gears up to go to elections, the 2015 state budget is frozen in parliamentary limbo, while the “Jewish state” bill will not pass before new elections wipe the Knesset slate clean and cancel any pending legislation.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party entered the fray late Monday, with chairman Aryeh Deri reiterating his own demands for entering a post-election Netanyahu government. These included cutting the 18% sales tax on many basic grocery goods, raising the minimum hourly wage from NIS 23.12 ($5.87) to NIS 30 ($7.62), changing the recently passed ultra-Orthodox draft law, restoring some funds cut by the current government from ultra-Orthodox religious seminaries and schools – and the cancellation of Lapid’s tax-free housing program, which would only apply for those who served in the military, leaving many ultra-Orthodox out.
Lapid’s charge that Netanyahu was caving to ultra-Orthodox demands followed the publication of Deri’s list.
“Instead of lowering the cost of living, passing a social budget, improving salaries for the middle class and supporting the weakest in society – [Netanyahu] prefers to raise taxes and to pay the ultra-Orthodox parties now from the pockets of the Israeli middle class,” Lapid charged on Tuesday. “This is a deal with the ultra-Orthodox of the oldest kind.”
The speech was likely a preview of key points Lapid will seek to make in the coming months ahead of a vote, arguing that the country is in a worse state because of Netanyahu’s rule.
“Our relations with the United States have been damaged because of patronizing and at times insulting behavior. Gaza is not demilitarized. An entire generation finishes each month in debt,” he said.
And Lapid rejected Netanyahu’s assertion that the Finance Ministry under his watch had stalled badly needed funds for national defense.
“This budget also had billions of shekels for the IDF and security services. The attempt to paint a picture whereby we stopped budget allocations to defense is false. The Finance Ministry, led by me, transferred and will continue to transfer billions for Trophy systems for tanks, to tackle the threat of terror tunnels, for Iron Dome batteries and to strengthen the air force. Israel’s security comes above all else, and the attempt to use the IDF for political gain should be condemned by all…I call from this stage to the prime minister and all the parties, take the IDF out of the political debate. Do not recruit our fighters into an election campaign.”
Battle lines drawn
Lapid’s comments came amid a series of declarations from coalition ministers on Tuesday appearing to draw battle lines ahead of early elections.
Justice Minister Livni seemed to welcome the elections.
“These elections will decide between an extremist, provocative, paranoid government and a Zionist, self-confident one that knows how to realize the principles of Zionism in ways that do not alienate Israel from the free world and do not alienate parts of Israeli society from one another,” she said Tuesday morning in a speech to the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Likud officials focused on Lapid, with a party spokesperson saying the finance minister “has failed miserably in his handling of the economy.”
Lapid’s housing plan “wouldn’t have lowered housing prices,” the official charged, and added that Lapid continues to “attack, threaten and undermine the government in which he sits, and to seek a political deal with Tzipi Livni of the old and ugly sort.”
Jewish Home’s Knesset faction chair MK Ayelet Shaked charged that Lapid and Livni had campaigned against their own prime minister in international forums.
“One of the reasons Netanyahu understands that he can’t continue to govern is that his senior ministers are conducting international campaigns against him,” she said Tuesday.
Shaked added: “There is a list of excellent things this coalition has accomplished, and it’s a shame it’s ended this way, but it’s better to go to swift elections than to cling to a dysfunctional government.”
“I don’t know anyone who is happy about it,” Likud MK Danny Danon said Tuesday. “But there’s no choice other than going to elections because the [government] has lost the ability to govern. There is distrust, there’s no glue, and so we can’t advance anything.”
Some voices began calling for a center-left alliance to challenge Netanyahu, who currently leads the polls.
Yesh Atid’s Science Minister Yaakov Peri suggested such an alliance was necessary to unseat the prime minister.
Labor MK Nachman Shai repeated the call. “We have to join forces, from the center leftward. All the polls show that’s where most of the public is.”
Speaking to the Ynet news site on Tuesday, Shai said the upcoming election “bodes ill for the country – a crazy half year, with everything stalled – but it is preferable in my view that it happen now because the country is stuck. Despite the short-term harm, it’s the right decision for the long term.”