PM to meet with top ministers in effort to salvage coalition

Move comes amid tensions over ‘Jewish state bill,’ budget; sources close to Netanyahu condemn Lapid for withholding funds

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Sunday, November 30, 2014.(photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Sunday, November 30, 2014.(photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hold private meetings with his senior ministers on Monday, in a last-ditch effort to patch up his fast fraying coalition. The prime minister is expected to decide in the coming days whether to call for early elections, and the outcome of the meetings with the ministers — leaders of the parties that partner his Likud in the coalition — will likely drive that decision.

Against a backdrop of growing unrest surrounding the “Jewish state” bill, which would enshrine Israel’s Jewish status in its constitutional Basic Laws, Netanyahu met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) on Sunday, and was set to meet with Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua), and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) on Monday. Livni and Lapid have said they will against the “Jewish state” bill if it is presented in the Knesset in its current form, even at the price of bringing down the government.

Sources close to Netanyahu said the prime minister would in the coming days make a “last attempt at examining whether agreements can be reached that will allow for the continued existence of the government, such that state affairs can be run properly.”

According to the Ynet news website, it has been nearly a month since Netanyahu and Lapid last spoke, due to the conflict between the two on the subject of the annual budget, and ongoing disagreement over various bills.

The sources issued fierce criticism of Lapid for an alleged plan to oust the prime minister and assemble an alternative coalition, as well as for withholding funds from the defense budget.

“Lapid is violating his commitment to transfer the additional billions of shekels to the defense budget, to purchase advanced weapons systems and training,” the sources said. “Instead, this money was allocated for national projects which were supposed to be funded by the Finance Ministry, such as transferring the IDF bases to the Negev.”

Finance Minister Yair Lapid attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on November 30, 2014. (photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/FLASH90)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on November 30, 2014. (photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/FLASH90)

The sources said the prime minister would reprimand Lapid and tell him “that he is no longer willing to tolerate his or his party’s conduct. This is not how a state is run.”

Lapid on Saturday charged that ties between the Netanyahu-led government and the Obama administration have reached such a nadir that the US’s assistance at the UN Security Council — including its vetoes on anti-Israel resolutions — was no longer assured, ahead of an expected Palestinian UN resolution demanding a timetable for an Israeli pullout to the 1967 lines.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Army Radio Sunday morning that Lapid was also partly to blame for tense relations with its closest ally, after having opposed a deal earlier this month to purchase a second squadron of advanced F-35 stealth fighters from the United States. The nearly $3 billion deal would eat up much of the country’s annual aid package.

“How could [Lapid] have — in a meeting about such an important topic, the F-35 — opposed it in such a way that would harm our ties with the US?” Ya’alon asked. “This is not how a government functions. [He] was against it because [he] wants to appear to be opposed to defense [spending], in an inappropriate way and for political purposes.”

Ministers including Lapid and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz argued that the money for the jets could be put to better use. Lapid has called in the past for belt-tightening in the military as part of larger national austerity measures.

Steinitz, too, took a shot at Lapid on Sunday, saying he was acting like a 16-year-old. The finance minister, he said, began his term of office saying “‘I’ll do it all on my own; I don’t need [input from] economists or the prime minister; I don’t need advice or ideas.’ Then after a year and a half, when it all comes crashing down, he complains that nobody’s been helping him.”

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu struck out at his coalition members during the weekly cabinet meeting, saying recent ultimatums or threats to withdraw from the coalition issued by some ministers were making it impossible to run the country.

Netanyahu told ministers that it was impossible to continue with the leadership fraying over issues such as the state budget and the “Jewish law” bill, and issued a thinly-veiled threat to dissolve the government and call new elections

“There are important missions ahead of us,” Netanyahu said. “In order to carry them out, we need government stability and sound management. Unfortunately, this is not what’s happening. Lately, almost not a day goes by without diktats, or threats, or threats to resign or ultimatums of all sorts.”

“I hope that we can restore sound management [of state affairs]. It is what the public expects of us. Only in this way, can we run the state. And if not, we’ll draw the necessary conclusions,” he said.

Netanyahu’s remarks came amid growing speculation that he may call for early elections if coalition members cannot resolve their differences over a nationality bill that was set for a cabinet vote this coming Wednesday.

The prime minister was set to present his own softened version of the bill to the cabinet on Sunday and to the Knesset for a first reading in the week starting December 7, but fissures have formed over whether the more hard-line version will still be brought in front of the Knesset on Wednesday.

Netanyahu is also sparring with Lapid over the inclusion of a plan for tax-free homes in the budget. On Saturday, Netanyahu told associates that Lapid’s Yesh Atid party was making it impossible to govern.

Channel 2 reported Saturday night that, despite reports to the contrary, Netanyahu would not let the coalition collapse over the controversial “Jewish state” bill.

The bill, which would enshrine Israel’s character as a Jewish state in Israel’s de facto constitution, has come under harsh criticism from Lapid, Livni, Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog and other opposition lawmakers, and President Reuven Rivlin, and his predecessor Shimon Peres.

Critics say the law is undemocratic to Israel’s Arab and other minority populations.

At a stormy cabinet session on the bill last week, Livni accused Netanyahu of backing the legislation in order to try and pry apart the coalition so that he can call elections.

Despite the criticisms, Netanyahu has vowed to push the measure through, saying that it would guarantee equal rights for the country’s citizens and put Israel’s democratic and Jewish characters on equal footing.

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