The Israeli government’s drawn-out death throes are finally nearing their end, as the sputtering, flailing partnership between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz will be put to its toughest test yet.
On Wednesday, the Knesset, will vote on a motion of no confidence proposed by the opposition, normally a formality that is voted down virtually automatically by the government coalition.
Yet this time, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle believe the bill has a good chance of passing, spelling the immediate dissolution of the government and the launch of Israel’s fourth general election in two years.
On Tuesday, both Minister of Economy Amir Peretz and Minister of Welfare Itzik Shmuli from the Labor party, which is part of the coalition, said they would vote with the opposition to dissolve the government.
The motion could pass if Blue & White lawmakers, after more than six months in the coalition, are finally convinced Netanyahu does not intend to pass a budget, part of the coalition agreement.
They believe he is instead planning to disband the government at the time of his choosing rather than handing over the reins of the prime minister’s office to Gantz next November, as the two agreed upon when joining forces.
“I have no idea what will be decided. Gantz is contemplating things, he’ll reach a decision and that’s what will be... We’ll see what happens now, it’s going to be an interesting 48 hours,” said Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Alon Schuster from Blue & White, who is considered one of Gantz’s closer allies in the party.
According to Schuster, his colleagues and he will ask to see “concrete evidence of meteoric advancement [in budget talks], not just mumblings” in the coming days if they are to support the coalition’s continued existence.
"For four months [the Likud] has put the brakes on this government, handcuffed treasury officials, withheld a budget. It’s an outrage, an economic terror attack,” Schuster added.
Israel has been operating without a functioning budget for almost a year, having passed its last budget in early 2018 before heading for three consecutive parliamentary elections that ended in identical deadlocks and spanned an entire year.
In May, when Netanyahu and Gantz finally formed a unity government, the two committed to immediately pass a biennial budget. Yet since then, the prime minister has repeatedly delayed and procrastinated, offering a slew of explanations and excuses.
Once a budget is passed for 2021, the government essentially cannot be dissolved, and Netanyahu’s options of wriggling out of his rotation pact with Gantz become nonexistent.
“At the time [of signing the coalition agreement with Netanyahu], we thought that considering the circumstances – the elections ending in a draw, the raging pandemic and looming economic crisis – the right thing to do was to give him a chance to change his ways for the good of the Israeli people,” Schuster said.
“We won’t make that same mistake now. He’s proven he can’t rise to the occasion and see to the good of the country. He still has one last opportunity to do the right thing. It remains to be seen if he takes that opportunity,” Schuster said of Netanyahu.
On Monday afternoon, Netanyahu addressed the looming Wednesday vote of no confidence, attempting to shift the blame to Gantz and the opposition.
“The opposition will try to drag this country to unnecessary elections,” the prime minister said during a Likud faction meeting. “We will vote against that, and for unity.”
A member of parliament from the Likud party, who requested to remain anonymous, also put the blame squarely on Blue & White’s shoulders: “I think we’re headed for elections. I hope that’s not the case and that they get some sense and stop this, but it looks like this train has left the station.”
The decision is now up to Gantz, as the former commander in chief of the Israel Defense Forces-turned-beleaguered politician faces a tough choice.
If he supports the motion to dissolve the Knesset, Gantz will head to elections heavily disadvantaged, with polls showing him netting less than half of his current seats in Knesset.
He also will afford his former partner, Yair Lapid, who now heads the opposition after refusing to join Gantz in Netanyahu’s government, a crucial PR victory by supporting his no-confidence proposal.
“If Blue & White does the right thing, this government will go home in 48 hours and Israel will head down a new path. We can end the worst government in our country’s history. Let’s do the right thing,” Lapid implored in a statement at the start of the Yesh Atid party meeting on Monday. “It’s time to stop being Netanyahu’s accomplices. You had good intentions; it didn’t work. Now it’s time to fix it,” he added.
If Gantz elects to wait, as he has done for the past six months, Netanyahu is likely to simply disperse his coalition several months from now when the budget deadline nears again, after the coronavirus vaccines arrive and he deems his political situation to be optimal.
At any rate, Gantz’s dreams of reaching the November date on which Netanyahu is obliged to step down as prime minister and hand him the reins are all but shattered.
“At the end of the day, he’ll find a solution that will allow him to climb down this tree,” said Itzik Elrov, a strategic and communications adviser.
“Gantz has a check he’s waiting to cash – the prime minister role promised to him. If he breaks up the government now, that check is gone. End of story. But if he extends this government, maybe maybe maybe he has a chance down the road. A slim chance is better than no chance at all,” he said.
Elrov, who in the past served as a senior adviser to the Labor party and Netanyahu confidant Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas, likened the government to a minefield.
“[Gantz] has been defusing these mines since the inception of this coalition, so that he can get to the promised land. So for him to come and burn it down of his own volition is just illogical, especially with his situation in the polls. I believe he’ll find a way to postpone it,” he said.
If Gantz does choose to delay his decision and offer the prime minister another chance to pass the budget, he likely will face stiff, even lethal opposition from within his own party.
“I don’t believe we’re headed for a split, but anything is possible,” Schuster said regarding a possible insurrection inside the Blue & White party, which Gantz established last year. “Time will tell. I want to hope it won’t happen, I don’t see any reason for it. We came to work together. We are all here thanks to [Gantz],” he said.
As for Netanyahu, Elrov believes only one thing is on his mind.
“What scares Netanyahu most of all is facing the courts not as prime minister. He’ll do anything to reach [the witness hearing part of his trial in] February with his current title, because he believes that intimidates the judges,” he said.
“Keeping his word and rotating with Gantz is not an option as far as he is concerned,” Elrov concluded.
Netanyahu is standing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Article written by Uri Cohen, republished with permission from The Media Line