Benjamin Netanyahu's office has declined to comment on a report that the prime minister has accused Defense Minister Ehud Barak of trying to damage relations between Israel and the Obama administration.
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Channel 2 news reported on Tuesday that Netanyahu said: "Do you know what [Barak] has done on diplomatic matters? He went to the U.S. to stir up the dispute between us and Obama and come across as a moderate savior."
Political sources say Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz are targeting Barak and his Atzmaut party; they will claim that Barak and his colleagues have prevented the 2013 budget from being approved. During a meeting Tuesday with Netanyahu, Steinitz reportedly said: "Be careful about Barak. He's likely to sting us on budget issues."
Barak's office responded: "It is no secret that in closed government meetings, and from time to time in public, Ehud Barak espouses positions unlike those held by most cabinet members, including the prime minister. But during his trip to the U.S., Barak defended the government's policies, and he tried, with some success, to help lower tensions between the governments and strengthen defense ties."
Netanyahu's office has declined to confirm or deny details about the prime minister's discussions with Steinitz.
Netanyahu confirmed yesterday that he is considering calling early elections and dissolving the Knesset in the coming weeks. In closed discussions, he said he would announce his decision around the opening of the Knesset's winter session in two weeks. People who have attended these meetings say Netanyahu is leaning toward early elections.
In these discussions, Netanyahu has praised his government's economic and security policies, saying that "for four years we acted as a responsible government, and it's important to continue on this course."
Yesterday Netanyahu met with officials to discuss whether he will be able to implement cuts he considers necessary for the 2013 budget. Netanyahu is trying to figure out whether he can muster enough votes in the cabinet and Knesset to pass the budget, or whether he will have to call early elections. He has met with officials including Steinitz and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who also heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
Political sources say Netanyahu plans to force his coalition partners to agree to early elections; he will then claim he wanted to push through a responsible budget but was forced to dissolve the Knesset and call an early vote.
During a meeting with Yishai yesterday, Netanyahu broached the idea of holding elections as early as February. Yishai said Shas would not support the broad budget cuts that Netanyahu favors for the 2013 budget.
Yishai added that Shas did not support early elections and that the party would not support the pared-down budget. After the meeting, Yishai said early elections would apparently be held in February.
Labor Party chief Shelly Yacimovich pressured Netanyahu yesterday to call an early vote.
"Setting a date for elections will lessen uncertainty regarding the state budget," she said. "Israel needs elections to decide between the various alternatives."
Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz joined the call for early elections, even though polls show that his party could do badly at the polls. "Kadima is ready for elections at any time," Mofaz said. "Netanyahu should be replaced, and hope should be restored to the Israeli people."