FM Ashkenazi: New elections akin to a 'terror attack'

Amid crisis, Gantz allies said split on bill to bar Netanyahu from premiership

News site quotes minister in Gantz’s party arguing that while the proposal is right ethically, it could backfire politically; Likud reportedly believes bill poses little threat

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party is split on whether to back a proposal that would prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a new government, Hebrew media reports indicated Monday, amid a standoff over the state budget that could send Israel to new elections.

The opposition bill, which will come up Wednesday for a Knesset plenum vote, would bar a Knesset member under indictment from putting together a government. If passed in three readings, it would block Netanyahu from again assembling a coalition after a potential election, due to the graft charges against him.

According to the Walla news site, among the Blue and White lawmakers to express support for the proposal during a faction meeting were Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir, Science Minister Izhar Shay, Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen and MK Miki Haimovitch. The Kan public broadcaster said Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn also backed the bill.

Zamir reportedly said, however, that while supporting the bill was right ethically, voting for it was wrong strategically, as it has a low chance of passing and could backfire by revving up Netanyahu’s base.

Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Expressing opposition to the bill were Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, Minister in the Defense Ministry Michael Biton, Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and MK Zvi Hauser. The latter two are members of the Derech Eretz faction, part of Gantz’s Blue and White led-coalition bloc.

Gantz said a final decision on whether to support the bill would be made Wednesday morning, hours before the vote, Walla and Channel 12 news said.

Likud officials told outlets they believed there was little danger the bill could advance in the Knesset, as they hold levers of power in parliament that will allow them to stymie it.

“If Blue and White supports the law it will be clear that what is leading the country to elections is the cooperation between Gantz and [Opposition Leader Yair] Lapid,” Likud officials were quoted as saying.

Netanyahu appeared to refer earlier Monday to the bill during a Likud faction meeting.

“I’m not impressed by all these Iranian and North Korean laws to trample the will of the voter,” he said.

Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening of the Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, August 3, 2020. (Knesset channel)

The scheduled vote on the proposal will come as Likud and Blue and White remain at loggerheads over the state budget, which must be passed by August 25 or the Knesset will automatically dissolve and new elections will be called.

Gantz is calling for a budget through 2021, as agreed in the coalition deal between the parties, but Netanyahu is now calling for a budget that only covers the rest of the year, citing the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the coalition agreement stipulates that if the government falls Netanyahu must handover the premiership to Gantz in the interim leading up to elections, an exemption was made if the government is brought down by a failure to pass a budget, prompting assessments that the Likud chief is forcing the budget crisis to avoid having to honor the power-sharing deal with the Blue and White leader.

The sides appeared to agree on Sunday to pass a bill to delay the budget deadline for several months, but on Monday were at loggerheads again. Gantz publicly urged Netanyahu to pass the bill within 24 hours to show he was serious, but the prime minister appeared to brush aside the warning, once again pushing a one-year budget and not providing a clear timetable for the deadline delay bill.

Netanyahu’s party has so far only pledged to support the proposed legislation in its preliminary and first readings, not the second and third readings it must clear to become law, prompting speculation that the move is a ploy.

In an interview with Channel 12 news Monday evening, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi of Blue and White said forcing new elections would be akin to a “terror attack,” but admitted the party cannot stop Likud from dismantling the government.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi speaks at a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, June 10, 2020. (Foreign Ministry/courtesy)

“We’ll do everything to prevent this and that’s what we’re doing. If Netanyahu wants to honor the agreement, there won’t be elections,” he said.

If there are elections, Ashkenazi said he believed “the public will settle the score with whoever took it at a time like this to elections,” referring to the coronavirus pandemic.

A new round of elections would be the fourth national vote in Israel since April 2018. Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to create an emergency unity government in May due to the pandemic, after three consecutive rounds of elections failed to yield a clear winner.

In an interview with Channel 20 news Monday, Netanyahu was asked whether Gantz will be prime minister, as the coalition deal stipulates.

“That depends on him. If he will stop leading a faction that is a government within the government, a government against the government, that argues with us on every matter, that delays budgets and other things, he will be prime minister. If not, things will break apart on their own,” Netanyahu said.

Also Monday, Netanyahu visited a store in the central city of Ramat Hasharon, his second visit to a local shop in recent days in what has been widely seen as electioneering activity in anticipation of a potential new campaign. While some onlookers expressed support for the premier, telling him “we’re with you,” others could be heard yelling “criminal” and “disgrace” as he exited the store.

Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases. He denies any wrongdoing and has charged without evidence that an alliance of the left, the media, police and state prosecutors are engaged in an attempt at a political coup against him.

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