מורן אזולאי
Moran Azulay
Photo: Gil Yohanan
At odds: Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Will budget battle plunge Israel into yet more elections?

Analysis: Political insiders say a fight over how to plot the country's spending is at the heart of the issue, with Blue & White accusing Netanyahu and Haredi allies of planning fourth national ballot since April 2019 at height of twin health and economic crises

Moran Azulay |
Published: 07.24.20 , 13:52
The chaos in Israel's political system appears to be worsening, as growing disputes within the country's already divided coalition threaten to plunge Israel into a fourth round of national elections since April 2019.
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  • Alonsgside the already shaky relationship between coalition leaders Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and Defense Minister Benny Gantz of Blue & White, two recently proposed bills have served to throw the government into further disarray as it struggles to effectively combat the coronavirus pandemic.
    ישיבת ממשלהישיבת ממשלה
    At odds: Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
    (Photos: Reuters)
    The first was a bill proposed by opposition Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich to investigate alleged conflict of interests within the judiciary. It was a move designed to throw a grenade into the Likud-Blue & White political partnership, but was quickly rejected by the Knesset.
    The second and potentially more politically explosive was the bill jointly proposed by Meretz chair Nitzan Horowitz and rebel Labor MK Merav Michaeli to ban so-called conversion therapy for gay men, which passed its preliminary vote on Wednesday.
    דיון מליאה הצבעה נגד חוק המרה מליאה כנסת דיון מליאה הצבעה נגד חוק המרה מליאה כנסת
    Ultra-Orthodox MKs react furiously as a bill banning gay conversion therapy passes its preliminary Knesset vote
    (Photo: The Knesset)
    Furious ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition vowed to punish Likud MKs for failing to scupper the legislation and Blue & White for supporting it, and have threatened to take retaliatory action.
    The threat - which includes a Shas pledge to abstain indefinitely from all Knesset votes - comes as the coalition faces the challenge of approving the annual state budget, something the government might not be able to do in its current formulation.
    Political pundits say that disagreements over how the budget legislation will be presented - either only covering the months left until the end of the year or planning for a year and one quarter as Gantz demands - will determine the fate of Israel's political landscape.
    If the government cannot pass a budget it will automatically fall and new elections will be triggered. This would circumvent Gantz's stipulation that he become prime minister at once instead of in October 2021 if Netanyahu calls a national vote.
    But Likud believes that Gantz has decided not to compromise on budget issues - even at the cost of new elections. Blue & White sources say that no decision has been made, and they are convinced that Netanyahu wants to drag Israel into another round of voting to suit his own personal interests and in contravention of the coalition agreement.
    Netanyahu is currently in the middle of corruption trial that will require his presence in court three times a week from January unless he can legislate a way out, for which he will need a more supportive Knesset.
    In Blue & White, they appeared to be sticking to their guns, painting the Haredi lawmakers as irresponsible in the face of the current health and economic crises as the unemployment and infection rates in the country soar.
    הפגנת העצמאיים מול בית משפט העליוןהפגנת העצמאיים מול בית משפט העליון
    Small business owners protest in Jerusalem over the government handling of the coronavirus crisis
    (Photo: Shalev Shalom )
    "Are you threatening us with elections?" wrote the party's Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir on Twitter on Wednesday.
    "Then you are threatening the citizens of Israel. You are threatening a million unemployed people. You are threatening thousands of new patients. History will not forgive those who dragged this country into another election campaign at the height of the worst crisis in its history."
    At the Blue & White faction meeting held Wednesday, Gantz insisted that the best course of action was to approve a budget for a year and a quarter, to ensure the stability of the country's institutions.
    He garnered support from MK Yoaz Hendel, whose two-man Derekh Eretz party split from the Blue & White alliance after the March 2020 election.
    יועז הנדליועז הנדל
    Derekh Eretz MK Yoaz Hendel
    (Photo: Yariv Katz)
    Writing on Twitter, Hendel said that he was "under the impression that a budget for one year and three months is needed, not a budget for three months. Every day we delay in making this decision is a wasted day in the campaign to save the economy and deal with the coronavirus."
    He accused the prime minister of causing chaos in order to suit his own ends.
    "If Netanyahu wants a [limited] budget just so that he has an 'exit point' from the [coalition] agreement - he is choosing instability. To go to the polls is to run away from dealing with the crises, both economic and health. We need to calm down now."
    President Reuven Rivlin also weighed in with a similar message, urging coalition parties to "wake up!"
    "With great concern I am following the developments in the Knesset, which repeatedly are shaking an already fragile partnership between coalition factions," the president said in a statement Thursday. "Wake up! End the talk of early elections."
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with ultra-Orthodox MKs Yaakov Litzman center, and Moshe Gafni, rightPrime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with ultra-Orthodox MKs Yaakov Litzman center, and Moshe Gafni, right
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with ultra-Orthodox MKs Yaakov Litzman center, and Moshe Gafni, right
    Meanwhile, Haaretz newspaper reported this week that Netanyahu is indeed planning November elections, some two weeks after the U.S. goes to the polls to vote for president.
    As Blue & White's relationship with the ultra-Orthodox parties has taken a serious blow over the ban on conversion therapy, it is unlikely they will intervene to ensure Gantz' turn as prime minister, as laid out in the coalition agreement.
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