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Analysis

A fourth election within two years is now a certainty

A High Court decision cuts Israel’s long-suffering government off life support, and everyone from left, right and center is readying the campaign

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Officials count vote ballots from the elections at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Officials count vote ballots from the elections at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Sometimes it’s important to state the obvious: The 35th Government of the State of Israel was a halting, limping mess.

It couldn’t pass a state budget, struggled to craft coherent coronavirus restrictions, often failed to enforce those it managed to approve, and couldn’t fill vital posts in the public service — from top cop to key public health officials.

It couldn’t even coordinate among its bickering partners basic steps to streamline the new regional normalization moves as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on keeping his Blue and White partners far from any limelight or credit.

It was that compartmentalization that left the Defense Ministry scrambling to sign a new agreement with the Pentagon ensuring Israel’s “qualitative military edge” after the surprise discovery that the UAE peace deal included, unofficially, a fleet of F-35s for Abu Dhabi.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz issue a statement at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, July 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Tal Shahar, Yediot Ahronoth, Pool)

Many might understandably consider it a mercy, then, that such a government’s end is now imminent.

Four developments in recent days clarified the point and removed all doubt.

Gantz’s submarines are just the beginning

The first, as already noted, was Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s decision this week to establish an inquiry into the so-called “submarine affair.” The inquiry will submit its findings in four months — just in time for election day if the 23rd Knesset, as expected, dissolves when it fails to pass a 2020 state budget by December 23.

That is, Blue and White leader Gantz is taking a step he learned from Netanyahu: Incumbency has its political advantages, and only a fool would fail to use them. Just ahead of election day, a Defense Ministry report will be made public that will bring into the news spotlight corruption allegations that have ensnared some of Netanyahu’s closest advisers.

Frustrated at Netanyahu’s continued refusal to pass a state budget in his never-ending maneuvers to ensure Gantz’s rotation as prime minister never arrives, Gantz has begun to play hardball.

The Central Elections Committee counts ballots from soldiers and absentee voters at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

But Gantz has few cards to play at this point. His best hope is to frighten Netanyahu with the prospect of an election that comes a little too soon for comfort.

The pandemic still looms over Netanyahu’s political prospects. He faces a great deal of public frustration over his government’s handling of the crisis. That frustration has driven a surprisingly strong challenge to his rule from right-wing Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, who has consistently polled well above 20 Knesset seats for several months now, an astonishing number for a party that took just six seats in last March’s election.

Gantz’s new submarine probe can only mean one of two things. The first option: He’s gearing up for an election and wants to look like he’s being tough on Netanyahu for the campaign – in which case elections in March are all but unavoidable. The second: He still hopes to preserve the coalition, but has given up on the strategy of giving Netanyahu everything he wants in the hope the government continues to hobble along. He is now trying to scare Netanyahu with a March election in the midst of a pandemic, in the hope that will force Netanyahu back from the brink and deliver a state budget and a few more months of life for the teetering government.

Netanyahu prefers a June election for a simple reason. The coronavirus vaccines are expected to arrive sometime in the first half of next year. If the 2020 budget fails to pass by December 23, Netanyahu will face a still largely unvaccinated electorate in March, possibly after another wave of lockdown and with a powerful Yamina and much public anger still driving voters away from Likud.

He’d prefer to pass a 2020 budget, then fail to pass the 2021 state budget by the end of March, triggering elections in the balmy, potentially post-pandemic month of June.

Illustrative: Defense Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a visit at Midreshet Lindenbaum for Women in Jerusalem on February 16, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Gantz has promised many more moves like the submarine probe. A talking-points memo sent Sunday to Blue and White lawmakers read: “We have many political and parliamentary tools to deal with the fact that Likud is breaking its promise to Israel’s citizens [by failing to pass a state budget]. We won’t hesitate to use them in the near future, right up to the dissolution of the Knesset, if it dissolves.”

Already in the pipeline are various bills opposed by Likud, such as one expanding access to surrogacy for gay couples. They are being prepared precisely so Likud has a chance to oppose them, and Blue and White has a chance to launch its campaign on a matter of principle.

MKs to vote themselves more campaign funds

While the Netanyahu-Gantz partnership, never healthy at the best of times, comes to an end, the Calcalist business journal was the first to notice this week an initiative being advanced by several political parties to increase public campaign funding for the next election by over NIS 400,000 per MK – or more than NIS 50 million all told.

An Israeli soldier casts his ballot in a mobile voting station on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights on March 2, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The reason given by the political parties contemplating the move: An election in the midst of the pandemic could take several days, and will require more staff and larger overhead for ballot station observers and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Of course, an election in the midst of a pandemic is an election taking place before the bulk of the vaccines arrive in the country. March, for instance.

Government votes to give everyone else more money too

Then there’s what Israelis call the “election economy,” now in full swing. Over the past two weeks, politicians have become astoundingly generous with lucrative government benefits and grants to key constituencies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019. (Heidi Levine/AFP)

An expensive decision to have local councils and the healthcare system buy Israeli-made products has long been held up by Finance Ministry bean counters. It’s now being rushed through the cabinet, to the cheers of the Manufacturers Association of Israel, the country’s major manufacturing advocacy group.

Last week, over a billion shekels were approved for Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip. As the Globes business journal observed, a similar (if more modest) check was written to the towns near Gaza in November 2018, as the political system was beginning its collapse toward the April 2019 election.

Another NIS 800 million for students were announced by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Likud-held Higher Education Ministry to help those who lost jobs or were otherwise financially hurt by the pandemic to stay in school.

And after passing an NIS 50 million grant program for Druze and Circassian communities, Netanyahu announced the move by tweeting, “We love you!”

Israeli Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif arrives at a rally where members of his community and their supporters demonstrated during a rally to protest against the Jewish nation-state law in Tel Aviv on August 4, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

No more delays, High Court says

But the clincher, the final nail in the coalition’s coffin, may have been delivered Tuesday by the High Court.

A petition now before the court argues that the Knesset violated the Basic Laws by pushing off the 2020 budget’s already long-delayed August deadline to December 23, avoiding the Knesset dissolution to early elections back in August. It’s not clear that the High Court can claim the right to overturn the August extension, as it was passed as a Basic Law amendment in its own right.

But the point isn’t what the court will rule — it’s that the court on Tuesday expanded the panel that will consider the petition to an unusual nine justices and ordered the state to submit its response to the petition by December 15.

Chief Justice Esther Hayut also chastised the government during Tuesday’s hearing for breaking the law governing the budget schedule. The government was required to submit the state budget for consideration on November 1 to ensure it has a chance of passing by December 23. The law places no penalty on politicians who fail to do so, and Netanyahu’s isn’t the first government to run afoul of the budget submission stipulation — but the law was nonetheless broken.

Eleven justices of the High Court of Justice attend a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on May 3, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Pool)

The expanded panel, the chastising by the chief justice, and the court’s very willingness to consider whether the Knesset’s legislated workaround of budget laws is constitutional all suggest the court thinks there may be a legal problem with the endless budget delays.

Does the court intend to strike down the August extension? Almost certainly not. For one thing, it may not have the authority to do so. For another, the proverbial horse has already left the stable. The government response isn’t due until mid-December, so no hearings and certainly no final decision are due before the December 23 budget deadline arrives — when the Knesset must either pass a budget or call an election.

Why schedule a dramatic nine-justice hearing after the decision will no longer matter?

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz after casting a ballot in Rosh Haayin, Israel, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The answer is simple: as a warning.

Pass a budget or call an election, the court is signaling, but don’t delay again. If you try to again twist the budget laws to win another delay for the state budget, the injunction implies, the court might overturn the delay and force the election anyway.

Whether the court has that power isn’t clear; that it’s doing its best to make the politicians think twice about any further delay is certain.

The end is in sight

Blue and White’s overriding interest has long been to ensure the government lasts as long as possible, in the hope of reaching the November 2021 rotation date in which Gantz becomes prime minister.

That interest has now flipped: Netanyahu is doing worse in polls now than at any time over the past year. Gantz knows he won’t be prime minister. It is slowly dawning on Blue and White that the sooner the government falls, the worse Netanyahu fares and the better its own chances for surviving to fight another day.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that everyone — opposition, coalition, High Court and everyone in between — seems increasingly eager to bring to an end the tortured saga of Israel’s frail, fractured 35th Government.

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