Netanyahu pledges cash handouts during election campaign, despite AG’s objection

PM unveils stimulus plan without coordinating proposal with Treasury; Gantz: Israel needs a state budget, which premier prevented

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP/Menahem Kahana, Pool/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP/Menahem Kahana, Pool/File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday unveiled a new economic stimulus plan including cash handouts to most citizens, despite the objection of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who says it is illegal to launch such a plan during an election campaign.

Netanyahu announced the plan alongside Finance Ministry Israel Katz, even though it was not coordinated with Katz’s ministry or the Justice Ministry. Katz is a close Likud party ally of the premier, and has repeatedly clashed with Treasury officials,

The prime minister said the plan — which analysts say has virtually no chance of being approved — aims to aid small and medium businesses and jobseekers weather the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are bringing a nine-step plan to jumpstart our economy, big time,” Netanyahu said at a press conference, adding that he expects the cabinet and the Knesset to support it.

The main plank in the plan was a proposed stipend of NIS 750 ($230) for all Israeli adults, NIS 500 ($153) for every child, up to four children per family, and NIS 300 for every child beyond the fourth. Members of wealthier households would not be eligible for the stipends.

The government approved similar handouts for the majority of Israelis last year.

Israelis take out money from ATMs in Jerusalem on February 22, 2018. (Dario Sanchez/Flash90)

Other proposals included incentivizing businesses to bring back long-term furloughed workers, providing financial aid to firms whose income has been hit by pandemic, a stipend for the disabled; delaying loan repayments, and providing unemployment benefits to all self-employed workers, among other measures.

Netanyahu lashed out at Mandelblit during the press conference, after the attorney general sent Katz a letter last week expressing opposition to major spending plans amid elections.

“Is this election economics?” he said. “This is election economics because it will help Israeli citizens? Maybe the attorney general will tell me how many vaccines to bring. It is inconceivable to harm citizens’ health because of elections and not to provide for them because of elections.”

The announcement of the plan came despite the government not passing a budget for 2020 or 2021, with Netanyahu widely believed to have thwarted it on purpose to prevent the implementation of a power-sharing deal that would have seen Defense Ministry Benny Gantz succeed him as prime minister.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks at a press conference, December 29, 2020. (Elad Malka/ Blue and White)

Gantz, who heads the Blue and White party, dismissed Netanyahu’s new plan on Sunday as “a manipulative display.”

“The economic plan Israel really needs has a name: a state budget, which Netanyahu and his representatives prevented at all costs,” he wrote on Twitter.

Other opposition party leaders also hit out at Netanyahu, with Yamina chief Naftali Bennett saying the “failing” government “recently prevented all economic activity” and prevented the approval of the state budget.

“Now, before the elections, you suddenly remember?” he said. “The public knows how to recognize fraud and false promises.”

Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman likened the plan to “bribery.”

“Our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren don’t deserve having to deal with the loans that Netanyahu is taking for his election bribery policy,” Liberman tweeted, referring to the ballooning budget deficit.

A number of unnamed Finance Ministry officials were also quoted by Hebrew media slamming the plan.

“It’s all political,” one senior official was quoted as saying by the Ynet news site.

As Netanyahu unveiled the new proposal, his right-wing rival Gideon Sa’ar introduced his own economic plan.

Gideon Sa’ar gives a press conference as he meets with several hospital directors at their protest tent outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem demanding more funding, on January 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Sa’ar’s New Hope party said its plan was aimed at boosting growth, improving infrastructure, lowering unemployment, assisting the self-employed and improving economic conditions in hardscrabble areas, vowing to release specific details in the coming days.

“New Hope will bring down unemployment, which reached a peak due to the coronavirus, and encourage returning to work with grants and benefits for employers who bring back workers, and also for the workers themselves,” Sa’ar, a former Likud minister, wrote on Twitter.

The rollout of the competing economic plans comes ahead of the March 23 elections, the fourth in two years. Surveys have suggested Netanyahu’s Likud will easily finish as the largest party, but has no clear path to forming a government. However, it is unclear if the premier’s opponents can overcome their differences to put together a majority without him.

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