JERUSALEM – Faced with the prospect of not having enough votes within his own coalition to ensure passage of the 2013 national budget, as well as a growing political rift with his defense minister, Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly considering moving up next year’s parliamentary elections from October to February.
According to Yisrael Hayom, Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz are trying to stitch together a revamped national budget that would feature a series of austerity measures aimed at reducing the country’s budget deficit and addressing the global economic slowdown. Israel’s annual growth rate has shrunk from five to three percent over the past year.
The economic downturn in European Union countries has adversely affected Israel’s mostly blue-collar export industry (canned foods, flowers, fruits and vegetables, glass, etc.), as thousands of workers in those fields have recently been laid off – mainly in towns across the Galilee. In the past month, the unemployment rate has reached nearly seven percent. On two positive notes, though, exports of products from Israel’s renowned hi-tech and biotech industries have remained strong and Standard & Poor’s recently gave Israel one of the world’s best credit and economic ratings.
Yisrael Hayom reported that the Finance Ministry’s initial call for 15 billion shekels, or more than $4 billion, in across-the-board budget cuts – featuring reductions in social service programs to children in need, mentally and physically disabled citizens, the elderly and poverty stricken families – will likely be reduced to 10 billion shekels in cuts. The Shas and Yahadut HaTorah parties have already informed Netanyahu that they would vote against any budget that includes cuts adversely affecting their struggling Orthodox and haredi constituencies.
For his part, Barak has waged a media campaign against Steinitz’s insistence on cutting over a billion dollars from the nation’s defense budget in the wake of the various security threats Israel faces from Iran and Syria.
This has only worsened the Netanyahu-Barak relationship. According to Israel’s Channel 2 News, Netanyahu has become frustrated with both Barak’s political demand that he retain his defense ministry post in the next Netanyahu-led government (if Netanyahu is asked to form the next government) and their differing tactics in managing Israel’s relationship with the U.S. (Recent polls show Barak’s center-left Atzmaut faction winning only two-three seats in the next Knesset if elections were held now.)
Netanyahu’s disenchantment with Barak has spread across his Likud Party. Likud members have blasted the defense chief for telling the international media that he would recommend that Israel execute a unilateral withdrawal from most of Judea and Samaria despite no formal peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu was incensed with Barak’s comments to the American media earlier this week regarding his positive meetings with Secretary of State Clinton and other high-ranking White House officials. Yediot Aharonot quoted a senior Israeli government official who claims to have heard Netanyahu say, “He [Barak] traveled to the U.S. to actually stoke the conflict between us and the Americans in order to come off as the savior – the moderate party that reconciles between the sides.”
A number of Likud members have urged Netanyahu to immediately fire Barak and replace him with former IDF chief of staff and current Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon.
Even if earlier elections are called for February 2013, the Netanyahu government will still be one of the longest-serving Israeli governments ever.