Elections 2015

Lapid, Herzog butt heads over who will lead ‘center bloc’

Yesh Atid and Labor chiefs each assert they’ll spearhead charge against Netanyahu; transfer of funds to settlements blocked; PM’s plan for 0% VAT on basic foods sparks criticism

Leader of the Yesh Atid political party Yair Lapid speaks at the opening of the 'Globes Business Conference, in Tel Aviv on December 8, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)
Leader of the Yesh Atid political party Yair Lapid speaks at the opening of the 'Globes Business Conference, in Tel Aviv on December 8, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

Ex-finance minister Yair Lapid said Monday his party would lead the centrist bloc in the next government, as he launched a scathing critique of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for having “no plan” to tackle Israel’s security and diplomatic challenges.

In a speech at the Globes Israel Business Conference in Tel Aviv, Lapid also denounced the prime minister’s newly introduced plan to reduce taxes on a variety of basic food staples, saying Netanyahu had kept the idea under wraps until now to gain voters.

In the Knesset, meanwhile, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and other opposition parties blocked an eleventh-hour attempt by the coalition to transfer NIS 120 million (some $30 million) in funding for settlement needs. Labor’s Stav Shaffir, who was thrown out of the Finance Committee meeting where the allocation was being discussed, complained on Army Radio that the committee was working “like a mafia,” and said “public funds can’t misused in this way.” Shas members of the committee ultimately blocked the proposal. Later Monday, Israel’s Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein warned the prime minister that the snap process by which the funds were to have been allocated was not legally acceptable.

Lapid’s comments underlined the friction in the center and center-left of Israeli politics, where Labor leader Isaac Herzog is also seeking to lead a unified bloc of parties. “It’s time to put egos away, and find the framework to work together as a big bloc, with a particularly big Labor party,” Herzog said in the Knesset Monday. He predicted that Labor would emerge on top after the March 17 elections, and “we’ll lead the country to a better future.”

Hours earlier, Lapid had declared, “Yesh Atid will lead the center bloc. We will connect with other parties to replace the current leadership and continue with full force, exactly from the place where we stopped. Everything is ready. Everything is already on the table. Everything can be restarted,” Lapid said.

Lapid and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni were expected to meet later Monday to discuss a possible union between their two parties.

Several reports over the weekend indicated that Livni was more inclined to partner with Herzog’s Labor Party, and was on the verge of sealing a deal, but Yesh Atid sources told Israel Radio that they consider those reports not final.

With regard to security and the failed peace talks, Lapid maintained, “Netanyahu has no plan.”

The prime minister “failed to bring security,” Lapid charged. “Instead of personal security, citizens are scared to walk in the streets of Jerusalem. Instead of quiet on our borders this summer we had the longest military campaign for over 20 years. At the end of that operation an opportunity was missed to disarm Hamas and no diplomatic process was undertaken to demilitarize Gaza,” he said.

The former finance minister said Netanyahu compromised the US-Israeli diplomatic relationship, and maintained that while the prime minister recognizes the pressing need for an agreement with the Palestinians, he is too “scared of the Likud Central Committee members and of those who will leave him for [Jewish Home leader Naftali] Bennett” to act on it.

“Netanyahu won’t do anything because that has become his default position. Israel’s security is dependent on our ability to take the initiative, not to wait until there is no choice. That is the legacy of Begin, of Rabin, of Sharon,” Lapid said.

The Yesh Atid party head called for Israel to work with the Arab League for a two-state solution. “Our shared fight against radical Islam allows us to join the coalition of moderate Arab states – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and to reach a comprehensive agreement,” he said.

Earlier on Monday, speaking at the same Globes event, Netanyahu vowed to completely remove value-added tax (VAT) on certain food products “under the supervision” of the government, the benefits of which “will reach millions of people.”

“That is the most basic need of most people — bread, milk, eggs. It means an immediate 15 percent reduction in the price of supervised foods. All these reductions will reach consumers and the more disadvantaged a family is, the more significant the saving. That’s social justice,” he said.

Lapid had proposed cutting the VAT on apartment purchases to 0% – a plan that Netanyahu opposed and that was eventually torpedoed.

“I was no disciple of the 0% VAT plan. I thought it was a law that could distort the housing market and cause prices to rise,” Netanyahu said.

“You give benefits to [the real estate sector] but it’s not a product that can be supervised. So one can therefore take the benefits and increase the price and the benefits don’t reach the consumer. There’s no logic to it,” he said.

Netanyahu claimed that unlike Lapid’s initiative, his VAT plan will cost only NIS 2 billion ($501 million) versus an estimated NIS 3 billion ($752 million) expense accrued by lowering taxes on apartments.

The remaining billion shekels ($251 million) will be invested in a fund for newly released soldiers that will double their discharge grant to NIS 60,000 ($15,030), an amount that “will help young people to begin their lives” according to the prime minister.

“They gave years that they could have been earning money to the state. [Such a plan] indicates to young people that the country wants them,” he added.

“Instead of 0% VAT on apartments, I pledge to bring the 0% VAT bill on food products and to double the money for discharged soldiers. That’s social justice,” he said.

Addressing the prime minister’s announcement, Lapid said: “Mr. Prime Minister, at least do your homework, at the very least know what you’re talking about.”

The ex-finance minister countered the claim of no supervision on real estate prices, saying that the government appraiser was in the process of ensuring that the prices would be fixed, and said that the housing measure would cost NIS 2 billion ($501 million) not NIS 3 billion ($752 million).

“Mr. Prime Minister, is it possible that you didn’t read the budget you voted for? Is it possible that you voted for the zero VAT law, and then worked against it, without even reading the law? Because if you had bothered to check, you would have seen that the cost is actually 2 billion shekels, not 3,” Lapid said.

Lapid welcomed the grants to IDF soldiers, but said that the prime minister kept the idea from him — as well as the zero tax on food staples plan — to gain voters, and avoid giving the Finance Ministry any credit.

“Until a week ago I was your finance minister. We put forward a budget together. Where was that wonderful plan then? Did you keep it hidden? Did you only think of it last night? Is it possible, is it conceivable, that the prime minister had the opportunity to assist citizens of Israel but didn’t do anything so that he wouldn’t have to share credit with the finance minister?” Lapid said.

Livni also slammed Netanyahu’s 0% VAT proposal Monday, indicating it was an electoral gimmick. “The public needs to remember what he said he’d do a month ago, and what he didn’t do,” said Livni.

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