UTJ leader said to tell party MKs that Netanyahu must be reined in

UTJ leader said to tell party MKs that Netanyahu must be reined in

Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman reportedly calls to vote against bill seen as preventing elections, in bid to pressure PM for yeshiva funding

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Yaakov Litzman at the start of the the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem,  January 6, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)
Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Yaakov Litzman at the start of the the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, January 6, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)

Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman reportedly told his ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction to vote against a government-backed bill, seen as crucial in preventing another round of elections, in an effort to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into providing funding for ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.

The bill would provide more time to end a coalition impasse over the national budget that must be passed by an August 25 deadline or the unity government will topple, forcing new elections. During a preliminary reading of the bill, which grants the government another 100 days to pass the budget, some UTJ MKs voted against the legislation.

Ahead of the Tuesday vote, as UTJ lawmakers met to decide how they would act in the plenum, party leader Litzman urged siding with the opposition, the Walla news website reported Wednesday.

“For a few months now the prime minister doesn’t know if there will be elections or not,” Litzman said according to Walla. “We can’t be in a situation where we won’t say ‘enough is enough.’ If there is any chance that [the yeshiva budget] will work out, it is only by voting against the bill. Bibi [Netanyahu] will panic.”

UTJ’s leaders are concerned about the delay’s implications for funds to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. Financing for the yeshivas, where a significant portion of the ultra-Orthodox community’s men spend their days in study, has been held up along with the budget.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at the Gur Imrei Emes yeshiva in Bnei Brak, June 16, 2020 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

UTJ No. 2 Moshe Gafni, who heads the Knesset Finance Committee, backed up Litzman saying the vote on the bill was an opportunity to demonstrate a form of “protest.”

However, some of the faction’s members were reportedly in favor of just abstaining from the vote.

MK Uri Maklev said “we must not vote against the coalition position” and warned against creating the impression that the party was in favor of elections.

Gafni told the meeting that Finance Minister Israel Katz had assured him budgeting for the yeshivas would be transferred over, apparently even without the budget being passed. However, Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush argued that was not possible and Litzman also reportedly cast doubts on the idea.

Despite the UTJ position, Shas, the other ultra-Orthodox party in the coalition, voted in favor of the bill that passed by 56-41 votes.

According to the report, ultra-orthodox party leaders have been voicing their concerns to Netanyahu that if the budget isn’t passed soon the yeshivas will slip into dire financial circumstances, but, they say, he has so far ignored their pleas.

On Sunday UTJ signaled that the party could break away from the premier’s bloc and abandon him if a new national vote is called — the fourth round of elections in less than two years.

“The option of finally breaking apart the right-wing bloc is closer than ever,” a UTJ source told Walla at the time. “It will leave Likud and Netanyahu alone on the path to elections.”

Then-deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman, center, attends a United Torah Judaism faction meeting in the Knesset on November 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

UTJ sources spoke anonymously to various media outlets, delivering essentially the same message.

By maintaining leadership over a bloc of right-wing and religious parties Netanyahu was able to present a united front of supporting MKs in three rounds of elections, which eventually resulted in the current unity coalition government with the Blue and White party, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

However, earlier this week Gafni told the ultra-Orthodox Yeted Neeman newspaper, seen as a mouthpiece for the party, that UTJ cannot threaten to not back Netanyahu if elections are called as the party’s supporters want “a Jewish state with a religious nature and preserving everything that is important to Judaism. The public would not accept it if we went with Gantz.”

Gantz is seen as leading a center-left block as opposed to Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc of lawmakers.

Netanyahu and Gantz have been locked in a bitter standoff over the budget. The two agreed to pass a two-year budget covering 2020 and 2021 as part of the coalition deal between their parties that was signed in May, but the premier is now demanding a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, given the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Gantz, who also has the title of alternate prime minister, is insisting on a budget that runs through next year, citing previous agreements and insisting it would help stabilize a teetering economy. He is concerned that Netanyahu plans to use next year’s budget negotiations as an excuse to break up the government to avoid a transfer of power in November 2021, under their premiership rotation agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Last week Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu was said to have offered ultra-Orthodox parties NIS 400 million ($117 million) in funding for yeshivas in order to reduce opposition by the parties to breaking up the unity government and calling elections.

According to the Tuesday report, the money for the yeshivas is included in the budget, but Netanyahu is offering to see it handed over immediately without waiting for the budget to be approved.

In return, UTJ and Shas will offer less resistance to calling elections, the report said.

A UTJ source confirmed to the station that the cash was on the table but said it would not buy ultra-Orthodox support for elections.

“This NIS 400 million is first aid for the yeshivas that are craving a budget, the minimum that we can get by with,” the unnamed source said. “We will continue to oppose elections even if we get this money but it will make it ‘easier to swallow’ [elections] and prevent us from taking extreme measures to prevent elections.”

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said “the report is incorrect, there is no connection between the issues. Netanyahu believes that everything must be done to prevent elections and to immediately pass the budget.”

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