PM-Lieberman meeting ends brief coalition threat

Lieberman Israel Beitei

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will meet at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Tuesday night to settle a dispute over a NIS 20 million cut in the budget of the Israel Beiteinu-controlled Immigrant Absorption Ministry. The two men met on Monday afternoon just an hour and a half after Lieberman dropped a political bombshell at a hastily-called press conference when he announced that his party would boycott all voting on the Knesset floor. Netanyahu told Lieberman at the meeting that he would find a way to restore the cut. In the interim, Lieberman agreed that his party would maintain loyalty to the government and continue voting for coalition bills. Lieberman, whose party holds a critical 15 mandates, said the decision had come after he discovered that haredi yeshivot were exempt from the across-the-board budget cuts, while the Absorption Ministry was hit hard. The ministry's budget, Lieberman said, was short NIS 20 million in its 2009 budget and NIS 180 million in its 2010 budget - a sum the Israel Beiteinu chairman said was significant for the ministry but spare change for the government. "I can always explain to my voters why there is no money for anyone, but I can't explain to them why there is money for some groups and not for others. If they could find funds for haredim, then they can also find funds for immigrants - a sector that works and serves in the army," Lieberman said at the press conference. "It is inconceivable that a party with six mandates [like United Torah Judaism] will dictate what happens in the budget, while a party of 15 mandates is neglected. Israel Beiteinu was the first party to join the government and the first party to openly support Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and the budget. But the government must understand that they need to offer positive incentives, too," he insisted. "I will not tolerate unfairness or discrimination of certain groups relative to others." During the press conference, Lieberman strongly denied any connection between his press conference and the decision hours earlier by Netanyahu to put off indefinitely a possible split to the attorney-general position. He emphasized that he personally did not possess any strong opinion one way or the other on splitting the position. Lieberman said that Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman was not acting as an agent of Israel Beiteinu in pressing for a split, but of his own accord. He slammed politicians and political commentators who had accused him of using Neeman to take revenge against the legal system while he was under criminal investigation. "It doesn't matter what I do," he complained. "There is no lack of contemptible liars and idiots in the Knesset or the media. That is the line that connects between [political analyst] Shalom Yerushalmi and [Labor MK] Shelly Yacimovich." By delaying a decision on splitting the powers of the attorney-general, perhaps permanently, Netanyahu gave a political boost to Labor chairman Ehud Barak, whose party is teetering on the edge of the coalition due to rebellions inside the party. Barak praised Netanyahu's decision and declared victory in Labor's faction meeting. He said in closed conversations that Netanyahu's decision proved that Labor had real influence on key issues in the government and that he would emphasize this in talks with Labor rebel MKs in upcoming days. "I will meet with the MKs one by one to see what we need to do, but time is running out," Barak said. The Labor rebels decided on Monday to hold weekly meetings of their faction, rotating each week between the four MKs' offices. Lieberman's return to the coalition fold was not enough to save the Biometric Information Bill, which was supposed to pass its second and third readings Monday but was delayed due to problems within the coalition. Coalition partner Shas, including Interior Minister Eli Yishai, continued to express reservations about the bill, and during the Likud faction meeting, leading party members, including Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, expressed their discomfort with aspects of the law. Yishai, Netanyahu and Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit, the bill's sponsor, met in the afternoon and decided to try and reach a compromise that would allow for the coalition to pass the law next week.