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Israel heading for early national election – ministers

By Jeffrey Heller

Israel appeared to be heading on Tuesday towards an early election after right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his major centrist coalition partner failed to patch up differences.

Netanyahu’s government, which is dominated by the right and came to power early last year, has been unravelling over issues including the 2015 budget. He said on Monday he would call an election unless ministers stopped attacking government policies.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, told a news conference, “An election is a now a fact.

“We are facing not a few challenges in the international arena and terrorism is also rearing its head. We all should have come together and now, instead, we are going to fight (the election campaign) for several months,” he said, referring to heightened tensions and violence with the Palestinians.

A new mandate could give Netanyahu more leeway domestically to pursue his settlement policies on occupied land Palestinians seek for a state and a controversial bill to declare Israel the Jewish nation-state, legislation critics see as discriminating against the country’s 20-percent Arab minority.

With next year’s budget not agreed and growth slowing in the wake of the July-August Gaza war, the most powerful coalition rebel, centrist Finance Minister Yair Lapid, said Netanyahu was taking Israel into “unnecessary elections”.

The Yesh Atid party’s leader accused Netanyahu of blocking his proposed housing reforms. “The government promised the people of Israel that it would pass a social budget and bring down the cost of living … The prime minister chose to act irresponsibly and not to fulfill his promises to the public,” Lapid said at an energy conference in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu has balked at Lapid’s signature proposal to exempt first-time home buyers from value added tax, a measure that critics say would weigh heavily on the state budget and actually raise housing prices by increasing demand.

Commentators said an election could come as early as March.

Zeev Elkin of Netanyahu’s Likud party said it was likely to back an opposition motion to dissolve parliament, expected on Wednesday. Legislators would then hold meetings to agree on an election date and parliament would dissolve itself next week, with the government staying on until a new one is sworn in.

Political adversaries accused Netanyahu of engineering the crisis – the next election is not due until 2017 – so he can oust centrists and win votes back from far-right partners.

An opinion poll in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper on Sunday showed that Netanyahu, with an approval rating that has dipped to 35 per cent, was still Israelis’ preferred leader.

Israeli markets fell on the election news, with the shekel sliding 1.3 per cent to a two-year low against the dollar.

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