Netanyahu set for last-gasp bid to save coalition as budget battle brews

Netanyahu set for last-gasp bid to save coalition as budget battle brews

Prime minister to meet treasury chief Kahlon late Sunday; proposal for across-the-board cuts to pay for police raises drawing fire from allies and opposition

From left, Gilad Erdan, Moshe Kahlon and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 18, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
From left, Gilad Erdan, Moshe Kahlon and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 18, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was slated to meet with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon Sunday evening, in a last-gasp effort to save his government from sinking with early elections looming on the horizon and a possible budget crisis in the offing.

The 6:30 p.m. meeting was to come a day after Kahlon, leader of the Kulanu party, publicly expressed support for calling a snap poll with the governing coalition teetering on a razor-thin majority.

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett earlier said he backed early elections in March and Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said he would also support an early ballot.

Netanyahu has been scrambling to keep his coalition afloat since defense chief Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu faction bolted Wednesday over differences stemming from Israel’s decision to broker a ceasefire with the Hamas terror group in Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry to celebrate the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The prime minister reportedly wants to push elections until at least May or complete his term in order to push through appointments of a new military head and police commissioner, as well as other legislation.

Elections are formally set for November 2019.

Further complicating matters, ahead of the Netanyahu-Kahlon powwow, ministers will be asked to approve an across-the-board budget cut to pay for raises for police officers and prison guards, as well as retirees.

The cut is expected to amount to some NIS 22 billion over the next 20 years, drawing protests from some ministers.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the de facto head of the ministry, called on Kahlon and Netanyahu to expand his budget rather than shrink it.

He said the ministry, currently battling a measles outbreak, needed more money to deal with the onset of wintertime illnesses and the risks of other epidemics.

A patient getting a measles vaccination in Jerusalem in November, 2018. (courtesy Health Ministry)

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, whose ministry oversees the police and prisons, said he supported the raises, but protested that his ministry was being asked to cut more than others, which he said was a punishment.

Erdan claimed the shortfall would lead to some 700 cops and guards being laid off. “This will hurt public security and personal safety,” he said in a tweet.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel also announced he would not agree to the cut, saying Israel’s budget for agriculture was already the lowest in the West.

Zionist Union chief Avi Gabbay speaks at a rally marking 23 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on November 3, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The opposition leading Zionist Union, which has called for elections as early as possible, said the cuts were proof that new leadership was needed.

“A government headed by us set a truly social agenda and will stick by it, won’t cave to every little bit of political pressure,” the faction said in a statement.

Meretz, another opposition party, is expected to bring a vote to dissolve the Knesset forward later this week.

‘Rabbit out of his hat?’

The political crisis began after an undercover Israeli raid in the Gaza Strip early last week went awry, leading to two days of intense cross-border fighting. Gaza’s Hamas rulers fired hundreds of rockets at southern Israel, while Israeli warplanes targeted scores of Hamas military sites in Gaza.

After two days, Egypt brokered an informal truce between Israel and Hamas. Though Netanyahu averted a war, he drew blistering criticism from both the right and left for his decision to accept the terms of the agreement after the unprecedentedly intense two-day rocket barrage on Israel’s south.

Fire and smoke billow following Israeli air strikes targeting Hamas infrastructure in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, near the border with Egypt, on November 12, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Liberman resigned in protest on Wednesday, leaving the ruling coalition with just 61 Knesset seats to the opposition’s 59.

Avigdor Liberman announces his resignation from defense portfolio during a Jerusalem press conference, November 14, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

In separate interviews Saturday night, Kahlon and Bennett, who had initially demanded the defense portfolio in exchange for remaining in the coalition, said the government had been left untenably weakened by Liberman’s departure and new elections were warranted.

Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009, has argued that his right-wing coalition should be kept intact and warned that new elections could see a left-wing government come to power. In a statement Friday, he stressed the importance of not repeating the “historical mistake” of electing a left-wing government in 1992 that brought on the “Oslo disaster.”

“If Kulanu doesn’t topple the coalition – the coalition stands,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter Saturday, adding that “a right-wing government should not be brought down.”

Kahlon confirmed he would meet with Netanyahu on Sunday “to hear what he has to say” but appeared convinced early elections were in the offing.

“I have a 9:30 a.m. meeting tomorrow,” said Kahlon, “maybe Netanyahu will surprise [me] and pull a rabbit out of his hat.”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks at an event at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on August 14, 2018. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

The meeting was later moved to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, though no reason was given.

On Friday, a Netanyahu confidant told the Haaretz daily the prime minister was hoping to delay the dissolution of his cabinet by several weeks so that he could confirm the appointment of the next IDF chief of staff and the Israel police chief.

Coalition sources told the paper they believed Netanyahu still hoped to make changes to election laws in order to lower the threshold a party must pass to enter the Knesset, though he made no mention of the matter during discussions with party leaders on Friday.

Both Bennett and Kahlon said Saturday they thought elections would bring about a similar coalition, with Netanyahu at the helm. Polls have consistently shown Likud garnering around 30 seats, its current number, with centrist Yesh Atid proving the biggest challenge with some 18 mandates.

Education Minister and chairman of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett arrives at the Knesset for a faction meeting, November 14, 2018. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

On Friday, Netanyahu met with Bennett in a bid to convince him to remain in the coalition

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement Saturday calling on the Jewish Home leader to “show some responsibility and not lend a hand to the toppling of a coalition that could govern for another year.”

A senior official in the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which currently holds seven seats in the coalition, said the party was not opposed to elections but “should the prime minister want to continue with the current government, Shas will support it.”

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