Analysis

For Netanyahu's Cabinet It's About Political Survival Now

With distracted ministers, 2018 may turn out to be a wasted year regarding economic achievements

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, February 13, 2018.
Emil salman

The Knesset’s first of three votes on Tuesday in support of the 2019 state budget and the Economic Arrangements Bill that accompanies it came, ironically, the same day as the release of the police recommendations suggesting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged in two corruption cases.

Final passage of next year’s budget, which is expected on March 15, would normally give the government a plan of action and provide political stability through the end of 2019. But the police recommendations to indict Netanyahu could mean that the government is living on borrowed time.

According to some assessments, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will only make a decision on whether to indict Netanyahu at the beginning of next year. Barring some other dramatic development, from what the heads of the parties in the governing coalition have been saying, the current government is expected to carry on at least until a decision is made on whether to file charges.

But under such circumstances, and despite the expected final passage of next year’s budget, the government will become a government sapped of effectiveness. When it comes to economic achievements, this year may turn out a wasted year.

Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues will be preoccupied with political survival rather than reforms, with one eye on the prospect of elections. It doesn’t appear that his cabinet will fight to implement wide-ranging policy changes that would move the economy forward (other than the provisions in the Economic Arrangements Bill) or curb the cost of living or social disparities.

As might be expected, the coalition partners support the pending budget and, at least for now, are backing the prime minister – all in the name of their own political survival. None of them wants to bring Netanyahu down and thus bring an election forward. After all, they don’t want to be accused by right-wingers of toppling the prime minister – even if key cabinet ministers have had their ups and downs with Netanyahu.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the head of the Kulanu party, was a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party until he slammed the door behind him. He formed his own party in an effort to end his dependence on Netanyahu.

Kahlon was boastful on Tuesday in presenting the 2019 budget to the Knesset, the fifth state budget that he has presented to parliament. Kahlon wants to stay in his job in the hope that the sky-high housing prices come down on his watch, translating into Knesset seats for Kulanu in the next election.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Habayit Hayehudi party, the mainstay of religious-Zionist voters, are both former advisers to Netanyahu from when he was opposition leader. But they left him. They can be satisfied with the cabinet portfolios that they received and the large budgets that have gone to religious-Zionist schools.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, which at one time ran with Likud on a joint ticket, later attacked Netanyahu. But he greatly enjoys his current job as defense minister and seeks to be seen as the responsible adult in the hope that this will help in at the ballot box.

Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s health chief and chairman of United Torah Judaism, has had his demands met over government policy on Sabbath observance, and now wants to pursue his plans for the health system. He is also backing the prime minister, as is Litzman’s party colleague Moshe Gafni, the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, who wields considerable power over government spending.

Speaking on Wednesday in Tel Aviv at a conference on local government, Netanyahu said: “We are working together for Israel and its citizens, and I want to set you at ease. The coalition is stable. No one has plans to go to an election. We will continue to work with you for the sake of Israel’s citizens until the end of [my government’s] term.”

But there’s no need to wait for the end of the term or for the attorney general’s decision on whether to indict the prime minister. This limping government needs to go home before it damages the country and its economy.