Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a group of European Israel supporters in the Knesset, Feb. 7, 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz were the targets of an unusually harsh attack from Knesset members and cabinet ministers from their own Likud party on Monday, who charged that the increases in water rates and gasoline prices would spell election defeat for Likud. The verbal assault during the weekly Knesset caucus was apparently planned, in part.

Most of the venom was aimed at Steinitz, due to his refusal to reduce gasoline prices at the pump despite Netanyahu's having announced a planned cut. At the start of the meeting Netanyahu promised that an appropriate method of cutting prices would be found, saying he would act with "responsibility, not populism."

The Histadrut labor federation, meanwhile, stepped up preparations to make good on a general strike to protest the price hikes.

"When the treasury's best answer is a claim of populism, it means there's no real answer," Knesset Economic Affairs Committee chairman MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen shouted at Netanyahu and Steinitz, adding, "In any case, populism is preferable to the treasury's autism. The public no longer is opposed to us, the public loathes and is sick and tired of the current government."

MK Haim Katz, chairman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, was no less blunt. "If you keep on like this you won't be prime minister next time around, despite being the person most suited to lead the country."

Turning to Steinitz, Katz said: "Elections don't take place at the Caesarea Conference or the Herzliya Conference. If we keep behaving without social sensitivity we'll return to the opposition. We are losing the public," Katz said.

Netanyahu interrupted, scolding Katz: "I would advise you to express yourselves more reasonably and more politely." This did little to calm things down. Vice Prime Minister, Regional Development Minister and Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee Silvan Shalom said to Steinitz: "Finance minister is a difficult, unpopular position, but everything must be done rationally."

Steinitz: "When you were finance minister there were also harsh measures, and I backed you up."

Shalom: "But in the next election we got 38 Knesset seats. When I made reforms I balanced it with imposing taxes on the stock market so that the wealthy bore the burden. It's impossible to raise bread prices after the gas price hikes, elections are two and a half years away and people are unhappy. Party workers say they won't vote Likud. It can still be fixed."

Steinitz's efforts to explain himself were interrupted by additional criticism from MK Ofir Akunis, and then by MK Danny Danon, who advised the finance minister to "come down from Mount Olympus. The public is crying out and you don't hear. We are speaking in the name of the people, and you still don't hear."

The Histadrut, meanwhile, has begun preparations to make good on the threat of the trade union umbrella organization, the Manufacturers Association of Israel and the Union of Local Governments to hold a general strike to protest increases in the prices of bread, water and gasoline. An official declaration of a labor dispute is expected to be issued after a meeting scheduled for tomorrow between Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini; the chairman of the Coordinating Office of the Federation of Israeli Economic Organizations, Shraga Brosh, who is also chairman of the Manufacturers' Association; and Shlomo Buhbut, chairman of the Union of Local Authorities.

This will be the first time that organizations representing employers join a strike planned by the Histadrut.

Steinitz called on Eini yesterday to meet with him in order to reach understandings regarding the price spirals and national minimum wage, and head off the strike, but Eini, Brosh and Buhbut appealed to Netanyahu to intervene and end the crisis.

Buhbut, who is also the mayor of Ma'alot-Tarshiha, warned: "If the cabinet won't understand that the public is fed up with the increases in the prices of water, gasoline and bread, we'll have demonstrations like those in Cairo's Tahrir Square."

Netanyahu and Steinitz have met several times over the past several days to discuss the strike threat and demands from Likud MKs to withdraw the price increases of staple goods, but no solution or alternative proposal has resulted. The two are expected to meet again today.

Steinitz believes there is no justification for rolling back the price hikes. At most, he is willing to allocate a few hundred million shekels from the Finance Ministry budget for improving public transportation. Netanyahu does not think this will satisfy either Eini or the Likud MKs.