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As coalition edges further toward collapse, Netanyahu pleads for ‘unity’

But Likud minister says Gantz ‘unworthy’ of being PM; talks between coalition parties continue ahead of preliminary reading Wed. of bill dissolving Knesset, compromise unlikely

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, during a visit at the coronavirus national enforcement administration in Tel Aviv, December 01, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, during a visit at the coronavirus national enforcement administration in Tel Aviv, December 01, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a public call for “unity” Tuesday, again urging Defense Minister Benny Gantz to refrain from dissolving their power-sharing government as backchannel talks continued on a potential compromise to avert the need for Israelis to go to the polls for the fourth time in two years.

A motion of no confidence is going up for its preliminary reading Wednesday. It would still need to be approved by a Knesset committee and then pass three more votes to formally dissolve the government.

Two small coalition parties, Labor and Derech Eretz, have said they will support the opposition bill. Blue and White is reportedly likely to also support it in the preliminary reading, increasing the election threat and hoping to prompt Netanyahu’s Likud party to reach a compromise.

Likud and Blue and White have been at loggerheads almost since the start of their power-sharing coalition in May, but ties between the two have hit a nadir in recent weeks as a budget deadline nears. If the budget isn’t approved by December 23, the government automatically falls. Gantz has accused Netanyahu of refusing to pass the 2020 and 2021 state budget in one go — as per the coalition agreement — in an attempt to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister in November 2021, also as per the coalition agreement.

Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the media at the Knesset on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

The only scenario in which Gantz won’t become premier (apart from Blue and White causing the fall of the government) is if the government dissolves due to failure to pass the budget by the deadline.

“I call on Benny Gantz to go for unity and avoid dissolving the Knesset,” Netanyahu said while touring the headquarters of the national enforcement center for coronavirus restrictions, echoing similar remarks he made a day earlier. “We don’t need elections right now. We have accomplishments. There is a real effort to lower [coronavirus] morbidity, bring vaccines to all Israeli citizens, give more aid to businesses and citizens. We need to do all that together. It is hard to do during elections.”

The premier said efforts were constantly being made to avert elections, but accused Blue and White of violating the coalition agreement “from day one,” highlighting the alleged refusal to form a committee that would approve senior appointments.

However, Likud minister Ofir Akunis later told the Kan public broadcaster that Gantz “isn’t worthy of being prime minister.”

Benny Gantz (left) and Gabi Ashkenazi of the Blue and White party arrive to give a joint a statement in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Blue and White’s No. 2, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, responded by lashing out once again against Netanyahu’s refusal to pass the 2021 state budget and saying it was hurting the healthcare system long-term.

“Delaying the budget and holding it hostage to Netanyahu’s personal interests is harming public health and endangering our future and our children’s future,” he said.

Channel 12 said that even though unofficial talks between the parties were continuing, an agreement that would avoid elections entirely was extremely unlikely. The network said Gantz would not settle for less than a legal guarantee that he will become premier, while Netanyahu isn’t willing to reach a deal that would deny him the option of breaking the power-sharing agreement down the road.

Meanwhile, the Ra’am religious Islamic faction of the predominantly Arab Joint List party was considering not supporting the bill to dissolve the government, amid a warming of relations between its leader Mansour Abbas and Netanyahu.

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party holds a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Abbas has recently been seen to be enjoying friendly ties with Netanyahu and his Likud party, and has hinted he could support the prime minister in various future votes — including backing a law granting the premier immunity from prosecution in three ongoing corruption court cases — if Netanyahu takes care of his constituents’ interests. He has urged his party not to automatically align with the left wing over the right.

“What guides the parliamentarians in Ra’am in their activity in general, and plenum votes specifically, is the interest of the Arab community. We act according to the expectations of our constituency, not those of left or right,” Abbas said in a statement on Tuesday.

He added that “a final decision has yet to be made” regarding whether Ra’am will vote in favor of dissolving the government.

Channel 13 news said Monday night that Gantz’s chief of staff Maayan Israeli spoke with Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Asher Ohayon, and told him that Blue and White would “vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset on Wednesday.”

That would give the bill a majority backing in the Knesset.

Meanwhile, the Kan public broadcaster contended that a final decision had not been made and reported that during a Blue and White faction meeting, some party members had pressured Gantz to at least support it in the preliminary vote as a means of pressuring Likud.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

A decision by Gantz to support the bill would kill any hopes the defense minister had of assuming the premiership as part of the rotation deal and put a final nail in the parties’ ill-fated coalition after barely half a year.

Gantz on Monday ordered his party to prepare proposals for a number of contentious laws that do not have coalition backing, in a move that could further strain the government.

The Blue and White announcement said Gantz had instructed the party to put forward three legislative proposals aimed at promoting equal rights: “The Basic Law: Equality,” which Gantz said “aimed to enshrine the right to equality and the prohibition of discrimination”; “the surrogacy law,” which would “evenly expand the circle of those entitled to surrogacy, expand the circle of women who can serve as surrogates, and regulate the possibility of surrogacy outside Israel”; and “The Basic Law: The Declaration of Independence,” which would require judges to “interpret all Israeli legislation, including other Basic Laws, in light of the Declaration of Independence as a constitutional document.”

Bringing the Blue and White proposals to the Knesset without specific agreement from Likud violates a clause in the coalition agreements signed between the two parties.

Kan reported that Blue and White officials were checking whether party members could legally support passing legislation opposed by the government and remain ministers.

Likud MK Miki Zohar, the coalition whip, told multiple news outlets Monday evening that Netanyahu intended to honor the power-sharing deal with Gantz, saying the premier is not interested in elections at this time, and putting the blame on Blue and White.

However, “we aren’t afraid of going to elections,” he told Channel 12.

Raoul Wootliff and Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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