Netanyahu Warns of Early Elections Unless Government Works in 'Harmony'

Prime minister to meet Finance Minister Yair Lapid in attempt to resolve coalition crisis, demands 'loyalty and responsibility' from ministers.

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Netanyahu and Lapid. Credit: Archive

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday threatened to call early elections if ministers did not stop attacking him and undermining his policies, saying he had made concessions to achieve harmony without receiving the same support in return.

"I believe that a government must work in harmony," Netanyahu said at a Likud faction meeting. "In an effort to reach [such harmony], I supported measures that I didn't completely agree with, like the zero-VAT bill. Unfortunately, I have not enjoyed the same support or even the most basic obligation -- the loyalty and responsibility of ministers to the government in which they serve.

Netanyahu was referring to Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, who has clashed with the prime minister over the 2015 state budget and the Jewish nation-state bill in recent weeks. Netanyahu and Lapid are due to meet Monday in an effort to resolve the coalition crisis. That meeting is part of a round of conversations the prime minister is holding with the faction heads of his coalition, in an effort to diffuse the internal tension and prevent the government’s collapse.

In his remarks to the Likud faction, Netanyahu accused ministers of attacking policies that he is spearheading. "Even construction in Jerusalem has become a controversial subject for them," said Netanyahu, adding that their criticism "strengthens international criticism of Israel."

He also accused the ministers of trying to replace the government and him, saying, "They are violating agreements that have been reached such as increasing the defense budget and moving army bases to southern Israel."

"I demand that they close ranks behind the proper policy for leading the nation, for its security, economy and lowering the cost of living, in every aspect," said Netanyahu. "If they agree to do so, we can continue to work together. If they refuse, we will draw conclusions, and go to the voters. As a prime minister who has a few years left to his term, I am not rushing toward elections. The only consideration is the good of Israel and its citizens."

Lapid, for his part, urged Netanyahu not to call early elections, saying, "There is still time to mend [the rift]. The public expects statesmanlike behavior from us."

Speaking at a Yesh Atid faction meeting, Lapid said that the government approved the 2015 national budget, as well as the VAT exemption bill for young couples buying their first apartment.

"The cabinet approved this budget as well as the zero-VAT law," he said. "The prime minister supported both of them. He sat next to me, voted for both of them and promised me he would work to pass them both. I cannot imagine that political considerations would change his mind.

“Elections now will paralyze the economy, delay programs meant to benefit the public and mess up work plans,” Lapid said.

There has been a total disconnect between Lapid and Netanyahu over the past month, with the prime minister accusing Lapid of trying to undermine him by attempting to form an alternative coalition without elections. The two are also squabbling about the budget, the supplementary budget legislation known as the economic arrangements bill, and the zero-VAT proposal, which would exempt certain categories of home buyers from paying VAT on new apartments.

“Over the past month [Netanyahu] hasn’t said a word to me beyond what was said around the cabinet table,” Lapid said earlier this week.

Likud officials said the Monday meeting scheduled between the two did not signal that the clash between them is over, but rather is being held to determine if the two can continue to cooperate. These officials said the chances of coming to understandings with Lapid were slim.

“We are closer to elections than ever,” said a source close to the prime minister.

Netanyahu is expected to demand that Lapid commit to “a lengthy period of calm,” and to not undermine him in any way. Lapid is expected to demand in return that the premier back him on the zero-VAT bill, prevent the dropping of reforms he’d proposed in the economic arrangements bill, that the budget be passed and changes made to the proposed Jewish nation-state bill. The two are also expected to discuss the latest dispute between them over the defense budget.

Livni: We must put an end to inflammatory rhetoric and radical legislation

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is supposed to meet with Netanyahu on Tuesday, told her Hatnuah faction colleagues that their main concern was the increasing extremism, violence and racism.

“We must stop the inflammatory rhetoric and radical legislation,” she said. “Our path is clear. We want clear policy decisions and the preservation of a democratic Israel is our path.”

If a new election is necessary, she said, so be it. “What is not fine is not to go to elections and continue with extremist proposals,” she said.

An opinion poll published by Haaretz on Sunday showed that although Netanyahu's popularity was declining, he was still very likely to win a fourth term as prime minister if an election were held today.

The poll showed Netanyahu's approval rating had slipped to 35 percent, compared with 42 percent at the end of the July-August war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but he still led the race against other potential contenders.

A key factor in the possibility of early elections is the stance of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Netanyahu has asked them to support him or at least not join a coalition without his Likud party after an election.

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri, has said his party would be loyal to Netanyahu before an election but wasn’t yet ready to talk about coalitions afterwards.

Degel Hatorah, a faction of the United Torah Judaism party, has said it would not promise to support Netanyahu after the next election, but neither would it help to bring down his government by agreeing to join an alternative coalition.

“We are not making any commitments, we’re in the bleachers,” MK Moshe Gafni told Haaretz on Sunday.

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