Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s appearance at TheMarker Finance Conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday came against the backdrop of a threat by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold early Knesset elections if Kahlon insists that a new public broadcasting corporation go on air as scheduled on April 30.
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“I’m not afraid of Netanyahu firing me,” Kahlon told TheMarker’s Knesset reporter Zvi Zrahiya, who interviewed him at a public session at the conference. “I don’t think we need to have elections, but I’m prepared for any scenario.”
“The political system has adjusted. If I were to tell you that I’m not speaking to Lieberman, Lapid and Bennett, I would be lying,” said Kahlon, leader of the Kulanu party, referring to the heads of the Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi parties respectively. “Everyone is talking to everyone, and we are talking too.
“If we are forced to advance elections, Kulanu will run as an independent slate. I’m not bothered by polls showing us losing seats. Whatever happens happens. I got into politics to create change. I will move forward with whatever we get.”
With regard to the dispute over the new public broadcasting corporation, called Kan, over which Netanyahu wants to have closer government oversight, Kahlon said he is unaware of any shift in the prime minister's position since last Thursday. That's when the finance minister claims he came to an agreement with Netanyahu calling for Kan to go on air as planned and for a bill sponsored by Netanyahu regarding oversight of public broadcasting to advance through the legislative process. “We will not permit harm to democracy, freedom of expression or freedom of the press,” Kahlon said.
Kan is currently slated to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority, putting those IBA employees who are not hired by the new public broadcaster out of work. That prompted one member of the audience to interrupt Kahlon and ask what solution he had for 200 IBA employees who would be left without jobs. Another audience member interjected to praise the finance minister, saying: “You are protecting democracy. We are behind you.”
Kahlon replied that the plight of the workers has not been thoroughly dealt with. “We have committed [ourselves] to address their situation,” he said. “We will help these people. Those who are laid off will receive personal and intensive attention. We will find the solution.”
Kahlon was elected on a pledge of stemming the increase in the cost of housing. One of his policies was the imposition of a special tax on owners of three or more homes in order to encourage the sale of homes being held for investment. That proposed legislation is currently the subject of a challenge before the High Court of Justice.
“We will do what the court decides. No one has done what I did on housing. It’s very hard to take action and sometimes people who don’t need to be are hurt,” Kahlon said. “I didn’t make a mistake when it comes to the law. I have a worldview and I am prepared to pay the political price for it. People who didn’t vote for me the last time won’t this time either. It will be hard to pass the law again if the High Court of Justice strikes it down.”
Kahlon expressed confidence that housing prices would decline. “Dealing with the issue takes time, but we’re going in the right direction. In the end, this process will affect housing prices. I know the scope of the housing projects on the market and see all of the plans that have been approved, so I am very relaxed. We are dealing with the issue after 12 years of neglect.”
Regarding taxes, the finance minister said the Israeli economy is “strong and stable” and noted there is a tax surplus. “I am a big believer that the money needs to return to the public,” he said, along with spending on government social welfare programs. “We’ve made several tax reductions, and I am waiting for the end of the first quarter [the end of March], to see the entire macroeconomic [picture].” But, he added, he has no intention of lowering the value added tax from its current 17 percent level.
Calling social problems the top priority, he singled out the need for custodial nursing care and services for the disabled and the elderly. Disability payments will be increased, he promised, as a first step.
“We are interested in lowering income taxes for those who are working, and we want to provide support for those who don’t reach the taxation threshold — through a negative income tax.”