As budget appears set for further delays, Likud loses control of the narrative

A week ago, Finance Minister Israel Katz promised to present a 2020 budget at this Sunday’s cabinet meeting – a meeting that may not happen

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Then-transportation minister Israel Katz, left, and MK Miki Zohar at a Knesset committee meeting, March 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Then-transportation minister Israel Katz, left, and MK Miki Zohar at a Knesset committee meeting, March 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Likud’s coalition whip dropped a bombshell on Tuesday evening.

MK Miki Zohar was being interviewed by the right-wing Channel 20. It wasn’t the sort of place where he would ordinarily expect to encounter much pushback. But interviewer Sara Beck, a prominent commentator and anchor, bluntly challenged him about the fact that the government has yet to pass a state budget for 2020, ten months into the fiscal year, and has done little to advance a 2021 budget.

Was it true, she asked, that the budget delay was an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “walk away from his commitment to hand the reins over to [Defense Minister] Benny Gantz?”

Responding to the question, Zohar confirmed what everyone already knew. “Obviously at the end of the day,” he said, “there are political considerations here too.”

He then dug himself deeper, explaining that it was only to be expected. “Blue and White so far haven’t shown true partnership with us or that they intend to offer their full cooperation,” he said, suggesting Netanyahu wasn’t wrong to be working to prevent the rotation.

Anchor Sara Beck interviews Likud MK Miki Zohar on Channel 20, October 20, 2020. (Channel 20 screen capture)

The comments embarrassed Likud, if only because Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz have been insisting for months – including in angry retorts to critical journalists – that no political considerations were holding up a state budget while the country was in the throes of an economic and health crisis.

Later that night, just before midnight, Finance Minister Katz issued an angry denial — and a strange one.

”We reject out of hand MK Zohar’s comments about political considerations in the timetable for drafting the state budget,” read Katz’s statement, which was posted to his personal Twitter account. “His words do not reflect the position of the Finance Ministry, which is advancing the ’21 budget according to the publicized schedule and out of purely professional considerations.”

It’s not clear why Katz couched the response in the plural or felt the need to explain the “position of the Finance Ministry.” No one doubts that Finance Ministry budget planners are keen to pass a state budget. A significant portion of the ministry’s top brass resigned in recent months in frustration at the fact that they were unable to do so because of resistance from the political echelon.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But it is clear why Katz felt the need to respond. Just three days earlier he announced that he would bring the 2020 budget to the cabinet on Sunday, October 25, to begin its approval process in the cabinet and Knesset.

As Likud dips in the polls, Katz is keen to show the party remains a responsible caretaker of the nation’s affairs. The budget is moving forward, he insisted. And by implication: Likud isn’t the bottleneck in the nation’s pandemic response, whose political maneuvers are hampering state agencies from managing its fallout.

Off the agenda

Katz’s frustration with his own party is palpable. And it’s only likely to worsen. The very cabinet meeting where he has promised to present, at long last, the 2020 state budget, may be canceled.

Cabinet meetings are usually held on a Sunday, with their agenda published online by the cabinet secretary the previous Wednesday night. As of Thursday evening, no agenda had yet been posted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

That’s not unusual, of course. The cabinet agenda has been delayed many times in recent months, usually due to bickering between Likud and Blue and White over what it should include. But in every case, a delay on Wednesday translated into the cancellation of the cabinet meeting the following Sunday. Israel’s 35th Government has gone weeks at a time without a single cabinet meeting.

Katz’s office did not respond to The Times of Israel’s query asking what would happen to his planned unveiling of the budget if the meeting is canceled.

Israel’s government has struggled to respond effectively to the many-layered crisis of the pandemic, which has posed acute challenges in all fields, from the epidemiological fight to the economic fallout to the educational reorganization imposed on the country’s schools by months of closure.

One doesn’t have to drill too deeply to find the mismanagement at the root of the country’s stumbling response. Israel’s ruling party cannot even agree on the reason it has held up the state budget, nor ensure that a cabinet meeting planned one week is still on the books a week later.

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