Netanyahu Offers Finance Ministry To Rival Days Before Election

03/15/2015 04:04 am ET | Updated May 15, 2015
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JERUSALEM, March 15 (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trailing in opinion polls two days before a parliamentary election, publicly offered on Sunday the Finance Ministry portfolio to a potentially king-making rival.

Facing possible upset defeat in the March 17 vote, Netanyahu has launched a media blitz to counter what appears to be a rising tide of support for his main opponent, the center-left Zionist Union.

Moshe Kahlon, a former member of Netanyahu's Likud party whose newly formed centrist party could be a deciding factor in who becomes prime minister, dismissed the offer as pre-election spin.

No party has ever won a majority in Israel's 120-seat Knesset, and the party leader with the best chance of forming a majority coalition is tasked with leading the new government.

The latest opinion polls predict the Zionist Union taking between 24 and 26 seats in the election, compared with 20-22 seats for Likud.

But even if Likud is outnumbered, Netanyahu is counting on a larger right-wing block to support his bid for another term, and Kahlon, with around 10 seats in the polls, could tilt things in his favor.

"If I am the one to put together the government, he (Kahlon) will be part of the coalition. Without regard of the number of seats (he wins), he will get the finance portfolio," Netanyahu said on Israel Radio.

A former communications minister, Kahlon delighted Israelis by promoting competition in the cellular market, a move that slashed the prices of mobile telephone services.

He broke ranks with Likud after social protests in 2011 and opted to sit out the 2013 election, later forming the Kulanu party and now making a run for the Finance Ministry.

Though a natural partner for Netanyahu, he is being wooed by both sides and has not ruled out joining a coalition led by Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union.

"We're 48 hours before the election, there was no doubt such spin would come," Kahlon told Israel Radio regarding Netanyahu's offer. "I didn't ask for the finance portfolio from Herzog or from Netanyahu. I asked for the finance portfolio only from the public."

Beyond promising to speed up economic reforms that will lower living costs, Netanyahu has kept the focus for the most part on security issues.

Over social media and broadcast interviews, the three-term leader has accused unspecified foreign governments and tycoons of funneling tens of millions of dollars to opposition activists working to undermine him and boost the Zionist Union joint list, led by Herzog and Tzipi Livni.

They, in turn, have dismissed this as a bid by Netanyahu to shift voters' attention from socio-economic problems to security challenges such as the Palestinian statehood drive and Iran's nuclear diplomacy, on which the prime minister argues that he alone can resist pressure from abroad. (Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; editing by Jason Neely)

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