Jerusalem — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears ready to come down from his high horse: A month after the forum of eight senior ministers decided to freeze $100 million in tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli premier seems set to release the funds in coming days.
While Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman remains completely against the move, and intends to fight it, he has retracted his threat to dismantle the coalition if the funds are indeed released.
The issue of the tax revenues transfer to the PA has been a classic example of Netanyahu’s modus operandi over the past three years. First, he balks at making a decision; then, he comes under political pressure from Lieberman and is dragged into making a decision he doesn’t really like; thereafter, he takes heavy flak from abroad; and finally, he returns to the original decision but fails to receive any credit for it.
“In the case, too, of the Palestinian funds, Netanyahu got the short end of the stick twice,” said a senior Israeli official who has been involved in the issue in recent weeks.
For the past two weeks, Netanyahu has been keen to release the funds. Fear of a political defeat at the hands of Lieberman, however, has held him back.
On Sunday, at last, Netanyahu appeared close to a decision. Speaking at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he announced he was considering releasing the money and that the cabinet would convene over the coming days to discuss the matter. Netanyahu’s reasons for his reversal - a suspension of Palestinian activities at the UN, coupled with the fact that a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation does not appear to be on the horizon.
Lieberman was quick to respond: “I have heard numerous infantile remarks about it being their money - as if with the money, they are free to murder or preach for the murder of Jews,” the foreign minister said at a meeting of his Yisrael Beiteinu faction.
Nevertheless, Lieberman did back down on Sunday from the threats he made last week. “We will vehemently oppose the release of the funds,” he said. “We won’t quit the government and we won’t create a crisis, but we will do everything we can to prevent the money from being transferred.”
The cabinet is set to discuss the matter in coming days - perhaps even on Tuesday. Netanyahu appears at this stage to have a majority for the decision to release the funds, but a source close to Lieberman said the foreign minister would fight hard. “The Yisrael Beiteinu ministers will vote against,” the source said. “The decision has yet to pass, and we will try to convince the Likud ministers to oppose it, too.”
The transfer of the Palestinian tax money is a technical matter that Israel carries out on a monthly basis in keeping with agreements with the PA. The funds are Palestinian money, the freezing of which is tantamount to stealing. For some unknown reason, Netanyahu has managed to turn a technical matter into a political dispute that has almost ended in a coalition crisis.
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