Coalition Tiff Over Finance Committee Chairmanship

UTJ MKs Rabbi Meir Porush, Rabbi Yaakov Litzman and Rabbi Moshe Gafni.  (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
UTJ MKs Rabbi Meir Porush, Rabbi Yaakov Litzman and Rabbi Moshe Gafni. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon canceled his party’s first coalition talks with Likud on Thursday, following Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s reported promise to appoint United Torah Judaism MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni to be chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.

Kahlon, the putative finance minister, insisted that the key position must be reserved for someone of his choice.

Kulanu said in a statement, “Following the Likud’s political act of handing out jobs at the expense of the work tools needed to lower the prices of homes and deal with the cost of living even before the coalition negotiation teams have sat down, the Kulanu party chairman Moshe Kahlon has canceled the meeting with the Likud negotiating team scheduled for today.”

The Likud said in response, “The step taken by Moshe Kahlon this morning on this matter is baffling and unnecessary — the place to mediate issues and disputes is around the coalition negotiating table.”

The incident occurred despite Rabbi Gafni’s statement quoted in the Israeli media earlier in the week that he would work with Kahlon on his agenda and so he need not fear any obstructionism. In any event, nothing has been finalized, and UTJ’s entering the coalition must in the end be approved by Gedolei Yisrael.

“I don’t understand Kahlon,” Gafni said on Army Radio. “I will advance his interests [but] he doesn’t have anyone on his list who has the experience to manage the committee. I’m not afraid of going to the opposition.”

In any case, negotiations began Thursday as Likud representatives sat down with Jewish Home, Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and United Torah Judaism.

The meeting with Jewish Home was described as taking place in “a good atmosphere,” despite earlier tensions.

The Likud’s Zeev Elkin told reporters that the party’s delegation had presented some 39 demands, which would cost in the billions of shekels. But,” he said, “this is the way coalition talks go,” and he was confident that they would proceed amicably.

Elkin said that the touchy issue of ministerial appointments was not discussed in Thursday’s session. Party chairman Naftali Bennett had said earlier that he could sit in the opposition, after Likud officials indicated that he might not get one of the choice posts — Defense, Foreign or Finance Ministry. But with only 8 seats in the new Knesset (down from 12), versus Likud’s 30, Bennett finds himself in a weakened bargaining position.

Regarding the meeting with Yisrael Beiteinu, Elkin said that the demand for the death penalty for terrorists was discussed, but that it was premature to even say whether there would be a provision in the coalition agreement for it.

Meanwhile, rumors circulated in the Knesset to the effect that party chairman Avigdor Lieberman’s insistence on becoming the next defense minister was actually a pretext for his departure from politics after a poor showing in the elections. The prospect of Lieberman getting the portfolio is small, considering that Yisrael Beiteinu barely cleared the electoral threshhold with six seats. It is being said that Lieberman anticipates that his unrealistic demand will be refused, after which he will refuse to join the coalition, resign from the chairmanship, and then the party will be free to re-negotiate to be part of the government.

When asked about his plans on Tuesday, Lieberman said that he did not expect all of his demands would be met, and would not rule out going to the opposition.