The ultra-Orthodox Shas party was first out of the gate overnight Monday-Tuesday to call for setting a date for new elections, following strong indications Monday night that Israelis were heading to the polls for the second time in two years.
Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri said overnight that the heads of all political parties must come together to agree “on the closest date possible” for new elections. He reiterated his conditions, first made public last week, for joining a future government — the removal of a sales tax from basic household items, and regulating the minimum wage to be NIS 30 ($7.70) an hour.
Deri’s statement followed an explosive meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid — initially described as a last-ditch effort to save the coalition following a crisis over the “Jewish state” bill and the state budget. In the meeting Monday night, the PM presented a list of stiff demands to restore government stability, which were rejected by Lapid as unacceptable.
In separate statements, the two then accused each other of dragging the Israeli public to new elections.
Shas, which has sat in the opposition during the tenure of the 19th Knesset along with the other ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, is said to have recently discussed joining the next Netanyahu government should he dissolve the current one (and win the next elections).
Rumors of pre-election maneuvering have circulated in recent weeks, reaching a feverish pitch at the weekend, including a report that aides to Lapid had approached the ultra-Orthodox parties with offers to join them in forming a new coalition, and that Netanyahu had done the same.
The Haredi parties, to their dismay, were blocked out of the coalition following the January 2013 elections that saw Netanyahu able to form a majority government without them, largely at the insistence of Lapid and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who conditioned his joining Netanyahu on the exclusion of the parties.
New elections could offer an opportunity for the ultra-Orthodox factions to find a way back in to power.
Opposition head and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog also joined the fray overnight in welcoming likely new elections.
“The people do not trust this government,” Herzog wrote on Facebook. “We must hold elections as soon as possible and replace the leadership. The Labor Party will lead the winning bloc and renew hope among Israeli citizens.”
Following the stormy session late Monday between Lapid and Netanyahu, sources in both Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua Party charged that Netanyahu had deliberately torpedoed the meeting, armed with a list of five demands he knew Lapid could not accept, because he had already cut a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties to set up a new coalition.
“Netanyahu was planning [to torpedo the meeting] all along, even before Lapid opened the door to his office,” the sources in Yesh Atid said. “Netanyahu read out the demands like one reads to a child,” they told Ynet.
“The [so-called] effort to stabilize the coalition was a bluff. Netanyahu closed a deal with the haredi parties and with [Economy Minister Naftali] Bennett. The whole affair was meant to cover up this deal and present demands for elections,” sources in Justice Minister Livni’s Hatnua party added.
Lapid’s statement after the Monday meeting, like Netanyahu’s, left little room for hope that new elections could be averted.
Still, coalition chairman Zeev Elkin (Likud) urged Lapid to accept Netanyahu’s demands and not allow the Israeli public to be dragged to elections.
Promising to choose “more deserving partners” in the next coalition, former deputy defense minister Danny Danon, a Likud hardliner, accused Lapid of being an amateur and leading Israelis to “expensive, unnecessary elections, in which the Likud [headed by Netanyahu] will once again win.”
Livni said Monday night that the crisis, and the upcoming elections should there be any, were about “Zionism versus extremism.”
“These [will be] elections between the Israeli Zionist camp and dangerous extremists who must be prevented from taking control of the State of Israel and destroying it,” she charged.
During the meeting in his Jerusalem office, Netanyahu told Lapid that “the government cannot be maintained in a reality where he [Lapid] and his party incessantly attack the government in which they themselves are members,” the Primes Minister’s Office said in a statement.
Netanyahu’s five demands to Lapid included that he “stop undermining and lashing out at the government in which he is a member,” specifically when it came to construction plans in Jerusalem and Israel’s relations with the United States, regarding which Lapid has voiced public criticism.
The prime minister also demanded that Lapid, as finance minister, transfer NIS 6 billion to the defense budget, and that he release the funds required by the military to finish relocating the majority of its training bases to the southern Negev region.
Lapid, Netanyahu continued, would have to toe the line when it came to the controversial “Jewish state” legislation and back that formulation of the bill as it is being drafted by the prime minister and his people. Lapid has said unequivocally that his party will not back the bill in its emerging form.
Finally, in a demand that will be very hard for Lapid to swallow, Netanyahu said that the finance minister would have to nix his affordable housing plan, which has met with criticism from economists. “With the NIS 3 billion that will be saved annually [by scrapping that plan],” Netanyahu said, Lapid will be able to bring to bear “real housing solutions that will lower rather than raise the price of housing, like lowering the VAT on basic food staples.”
“The citizens of Israel vested me with responsibility, and with the current government, it is impossible to manage the country as the citizens of Israel expect that we do,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “If the unprecedented conduct of some of the cabinet ministers persists there will be no choice but to seek the voter’s trust once again.
“This isn’t the option that I favor, but a far worse option will be the continued existence of a cabinet in whose ministers sabotage the government’s actions and policy against the public’s interest.”
Minutes after Netanyahu published his list of demands, Lapid said that Netanyahu was “dragging Israel to unnecessary elections” as the prime minister had presented demands that were impossible to accept.
Netanyahu, Lapid charged, was acting “without consideration for the national interest” and placing “the needs of the Israeli public at the bottom of his list of priorities.”
“The demands by the prime minister to Yesh Atid expose his political intentions,” Lapid said.
“Netanyahu prefers a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties to bring forward the elections above the interests of the wider Israeli public. The Israeli public now understands that at the head of the government is a prime minister who doesn’t carry out his promises. A prime minister who prefers his personal survival to their interests,” he went on.
The Yesh Atid leader said he was committed “to continue fighting for the citizens of Israel and the public’s right to a socially aware budget with billions of shekels towards education, health, welfare and internal security, without tax rises and with a comprehensive housing plan for young couples.”
Earlier Monday, amid growing criticism of Netanyahu from several ministers in his coalition, the prime minster warned that unless the government could work together “harmoniously,” he would initiate elections for early next year, two years ahead of schedule.
During a Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu decried to MKs from his party the lack of coalition support for his domestic and diplomatic policies, saying, “My diplomatic policies are constantly attacked, where even construction in Jerusalem becomes a controversial issue.”
He went on to accuse coalition members of trying to oust him, and told the MKs that although he was “reluctant” to call for early elections, he would do so if it was in Israel’s best interests.
“I have not received even the most basic obligation — the loyalty and responsibility of ministers to the government in which they serve,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister’s five-party governing coalition has been teetering on the brink of collapse amid bitter differences over the 2015 budget and the controversial “Jewish state” bill, which critics say discriminates against Israel’s Arab minority.
Netanyahu has remained adamant about pushing the legislation forward, despite threats by both Livni and Lapid to leave the coalition if the bill advances in its current form.
Elie Leshem and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.