Top coalition partners downplay talk of early elections

Top coalition partners downplay talk of early elections

But finance minister warns he could quit post if budget not passed by next week, and defense minister digs in heels on draft fight

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (foreground, left), speaks to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (foreground, right), at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 20, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (foreground, left), speaks to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (foreground, right), at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 20, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Coalition leaders on Monday stressed they were not seeking early elections, amid a spiraling intra-coalition fight over the state budget and a bill that would grant military service exemptions to ultra-Orthodox students.

Still, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon threatened to quit his post if the 2019 budget was not passed by next week, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman insisted his party would not fold to the demands of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

Over the past week, ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have threatened to vote down the budget — a move that would bring down the current government — unless legislation is approved exempting members of their community from the military draft. The controversy has stoked speculation that elections, currently scheduled for November 2019, could be held as early as June of this year.

“If the budget doesn’t pass by the end of the session, I have lost my public mandate,” said Kahlon, the leader of the Kulanu coalition party. “I cannot fulfill my agreement with the voters. I don’t see how I can continue to serve as finance minister.”

Chairman of the Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni (R) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attend a Finance committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on September 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The 2019 state budget can technically be passed until the end of the year, but Kahlon, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been adamant it be passed earlier, before a six-week recess beginning March 18.

Kahlon also expressed hope the coalition partners would reach a compromise on the Haredi draft bill and avoid early elections.

On Friday, Kahlon reportedly threatened to pull Kulanu out of the government if next year’s budget is not brought to a vote in the next two weeks as planned, a move that would also lead to the government’s collapse. He did not repeat that threat in his comments on Monday.

At issue is the form that new military draft legislation will take, after the High Court of Justice in September threw out a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, on the grounds that it undermined the principle of equality before the law.

The government has until September to re-legislate the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, with Haredi lawmakers pushing two parallel bills that would force the state to recognize long-term Torah study as a form of service, and the Defense Ministry hammering out its own version of the legislation.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman, at the weekly meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu faction on Monday, was combative, insisting his party would only support the law being formulated by a professional committee in his ministry.

“We are not against the ultra-Orthodox,” said Liberman. But, he added, “everyone, not just the ultra-Orthodox, but the Arabs too, must contribute to the state in which they live.”

Ministers have been working on a compromise that would see the draft exemption bill debated — and presumably passed — by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation before the Knesset begins discussing the 2019 budget. Under the proposal, the bill will not be voted upon in the plenum until after the budget has been passed.

Liberman, however, spoke of an attempt by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to pass the bill into law (with three plenary readings) by next week, before the parliament goes on a six-week recess.

“To pass a law in three readings in one week is not legislation, it’s theft… Instead of a law, we’ll get a parody,” said Liberman.

Telling the ultra-Orthodox parties to “calm down,” he said Haredi lawmakers “also know you can’t pass a law in a week.”

But Liberman stressed that his party is not seeking new elections and expressed hope the ultra-Orthodox parties would soften their demands.

“We have no interest in breaking up the coalition,” he said repeatedly. “I haven’t met anyone who voluntarily gives up the [job] of defense minister.”

The Yisrael Beytenu leader did hint of a possible rebellion if the ultra-Orthodox parties advance their bills into law. Should their proposals be approved in three readings, he said, “we will have no choice but to get up and draw conclusions.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on February 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid speculation that Netanyahu could seek a snap vote to secure his reelection, preempting an indictment on corruption charges, the defense minister also opined that the premier is not seeking to dissolve the government.

“I don’t think Netanyahu, right now, is looking for a reason to break up the government,” he said.

Earlier on Monday, United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni — who as chairman of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee oversees the approval of most of the state budget — said new elections were unlikely.

“My assessment is that there won’t be elections,” said the top ultra-Orthodox lawmaker, amid ongoing coalition negotiations to reach a compromise deal.

On Sunday, Jewish Home party ministers branded the coalition crisis “fake” and suggested the prime minister — in Washington for a week-long diplomatic trip — could easily resolve it.

“It’s a fake crisis. If  Netanyahu wants to solve it, he could do so in 10 minutes,” Jewish Home’s leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, said.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said it would be “irresponsible” of Netanyahu to allow the “fake crisis” to topple the current right-wing government, suggesting that prime minister could smooth over the apparent deadlock.

Liberman, on Monday, saw it differently.

“I don’t think the prime minister is a magician, and if he had a solution, he would present it,” he said.

Before taking off for the AIPAC policy conference on Saturday evening, the prime minister told reporters, “There is no reason for us to go to early elections, and with good will that will not happen.”

He predicted the government would survive through November 2019, when elections are currently scheduled to be held.

But hours earlier, Hadashot TV news quoted senior coalition partners predicting that Israel will be heading to the polls in June, nearly a year-and-a-half before the full tenure of Netanyahu’s government is set to end.

The report said that while neither Netanyahu nor any of his coalition leaders would like to see elections held early, none of them could withstand the negative publicity that a compromise over the decisive ultra-Orthodox draft legislation could bring.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at a meeting in the Knesset on December 25, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The ultra-Orthodox enlistment law was slammed on Monday by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

“The draft dodging law is an insult to the state, to every IDF soldier, and to the Torah,” said Lapid. “Nowhere in the Torah does it say that you can send someone else to be killed on your behalf.”

He alleged that Netanyahu is not concerned with the legislative fights roiling his coalition partners, but is merely worried about avoiding prosecution in the corruption probes into his affairs.

“There is no one in the State of Israel who thinks the prime minister really cares about the draft issue, or the budget. The only thing he’s preoccupied with are the investigations. How he’ll stop the investigations,” said Lapid.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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