Israel Seeks Solution to Budget Stalemate as Party Leaders Dig in Heels

Efforts are complicated by the absence of the prime minister, who is on a trip to the United States

Illustrative photo shows the Knesset Finance Committee earlier this year.
Olivier Fitoussi

Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government sought to break the impasse over the 2019 budget with various ideas for advancing the conscription law demanded by ultra-Orthodox parties, but coalition leaders themselves dug in their heels.

“A big mistake was made by linking the budget with approval of the draft law,” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon told members of his Kulanu Party. “No one can promise me that in another month or two months the budget will pass. There was a decision that it would pass during the winter session and we are determined to do so.”

The government planned to win Knesset approval for the budget and the supplementary Economic Arrangements Bill by the middle of next week, before the Knesset begins its Passover break.

But the timeline was suddenly upset last week when ultra-Orthodox lawmakers said they would hinge the vote on the Knesset’s approval of two pieces of legislation that would exempt Haredi men from army service and circumvent a High Court order calling for draft equality.

Coalition members were entertaining several compromise proposals, among them a plan to put the draft legislation to a preliminary Knesset vote before the vote on the budget. The draft legislation would then complete the legislative process during the Knesset’s summer session.

Sources said that Netanyahu had been consulting with coalition chiefs over the last two days, but the prime minister is now in Washington to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump and address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, so he is not giving his full attention to the crisis.

The sources said the decision ultimately rested with Netanyahu, who must decide whether he is willing to let the government fall and call early elections.

They said the fact that Nir Hefetz, a former adviser to the prime minster, accepted a deal to turn state’s evidence might incline Netanyahu toward a snap election because with the multiple police investigations against him, the move puts him in increased legal jeopardy.

Both Kahlon and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, have both come out strongly against the draft law.

Lieberman told his party’s lawmakers on Monday that he remained opposed to the draft legislation, saying the terms for Haredi conscription should be decided by an expert committee, not as a political maneuver. He said the party would vote no if there were a preliminary vote on the issue.

Meanwhiele, Arye Dery, the interor minster and Shas Party leader who has stayed on the sidelines of the dispute, insisted on Monday that the issue of the draft was “critical for us – without it, we can’t move forward.”

Despite the deadlock, neither Kahlon nor Leiberman expressed any support for early elections. “The government is working and functioning well and should remain until November 2019 [the next scheduled election date],” Kahlon said, but warned, “I don’t see how I could continue as finance minister if the budget doesn’t pass.”

He said that from his discussions with Netanyahu, he believed the priome minster did want to resolve the problem.