Tensions flared in a meeting of cabinet ministers Sunday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz reportedly raised their voices at each other amid a standoff over the state budget.
Gantz is demanding the government pass a two-year budget covering all of 2020 and 2021, as per the coalition agreement signed between Likud and Blue and White in May.
Netanyahu has insisted instead on a one-year budget, saying the coronavirus pandemic had upended economic forecasts for next year. Since under Israeli law the failure to pass a 2021 budget by next March would force new elections, Blue and White has accused Netanyahu of deliberately attempting to violate the coalition agreement with his budget demand in order to avoid having to hand over the prime minister post to Gantz in November 2021, as per the deal.
According to leaks from a closed-door Sunday meeting of the “coronavirus cabinet” — a cabinet committee charged with stemming the virus’s spread and dealing with its economic fallout — Gantz reportedly angrily accused Netanyahu of deliberately deceiving him, saying the prime minister had never intended to honor the coalition agreement between their parties.
Netanyahu retorted sarcastically that he couldn’t hear his defense minister, according to Channel 12, which cited unnamed sources who it said were at the meeting. “Will someone turn up the volume? We can’t hear,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying.
The report also said Gantz then accused Finance Minister Israel Katz of trying to force a one-year budget by instructing the Finance Ministry to only draft a 2020 budget, in violation of the coalition deal. With the two-year budget unprepared, it would now take weeks to produce it, weeks that would mean further instability for Israel’s teetering economy.
The tensions come amid growing speculation that Netanyahu was deliberately pushing Gantz into a corner in order to dissolve the government and force new elections.
If a new election is called by the time of the budget deadline on August 25, it would be held in mid- to late-November — most likely on November 18 or 25 — and would constitute the fourth general election in 19 months.
The tensions between the two politicians have already nearly frozen the cabinet’s work. Earlier Sunday, in an unprecedented first, the weekly cabinet meeting was scuttled after Netanyahu and Gantz failed to agree on an agenda.
Under their coalition deal, both parties must okay the agenda for the weekly cabinet meeting, generally held on Sundays. But with no agreed-upon agenda, the meeting was called off.
Likud has claimed Blue and White refused to okay an agenda item on a proposal for a NIS 8.5 billion ($2.5 billion) coronavirus assistance program. Blue and White said the item was a red herring and a plan that still required work, maintaining that it was Likud that had refused to put on the agenda a vote on cabinet rules stipulated in the coalition agreement.
A Sunday morning newspaper report cited senior officials from Blue and White saying it was a “mistake” to enter into a coalition with the Likud party, and that there was no real possibility to resolve the budget crisis because Netanyahu was determined to take the country to the polls.
“In the end it was a mistake to enter the government under Bibi if after three months everything falls apart,” one unnamed party official told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
“We were not sure if Netanyahu would honor the rotation agreement [according to which Gantz becomes PM in November 2021], but now it turns out he is not even waiting until November 2021 but wants to dismantle everything now, simply out of fear that [Blue and White chief Benny] Gantz will replace him as prime minister.”
Likud, meanwhile, has insisted Blue and White’s insistence on a two-year budget would hurt Israelis.
“They’ve crossed a red line. Blue and White has moved from a political disagreement to seriously harming the wider public,” Katz told Army Radio on Sunday morning.
While Netanyahu has to hand over the premiership to Gantz if he calls new elections before the Blue and White chief takes over as prime minister in November 2021, the coalition deal made an exception for a failure to pass a budget, leading to speculation the Likud leader was forcing the budget crisis now to avoid having to leave office in 15 months’ time.
As acrimony between the parties grew less than three months after the government’s formation, Army Radio on Sunday released recordings of Gantz, which it said were made over the weekend, in which the Blue and White leader was heard saying Netanyahu was inflaming tensions with the intention of dividing the country.
“I think it’s wrong to have a prime minister with three indictments. I have said it and I have not changed my mind,” Gantz said. “I do not divide to rule and I do not spread hate just to strengthen my base. Ask yourself who behaves differently — who spreads hate to strengthen the base and who divides to rule?”
Netanyahu is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases. He denies any wrongdoing.
Blue and White faction chair Eitan Ginzburg called on Likud to publicly admit that the party was seeking elections, if that was the case.
“The public is not stupid,” Ginzburg wrote. “If you want elections so desperately — stand up and say so, so everyone knows. If you don’t, prove it and do what is right for the country.”
In an interview aired Saturday, Gantz stuck to his guns on the budget, saying he would not drop his demand for one that runs through 2021.
“To stabilize the government, a plan is needed for 2020-2021. Not a budget for the holidays or [for a] weekend, a budget for a full year,” he told Channel 12 news. “I won’t concede.”
Gantz and Netanyahu agreed on a power-sharing deal in May after three consecutive rounds of elections proved indecisive. The deal split Blue and White, due to the party’s campaign pledge not to join a government led by the premier because of the graft charges against him. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Telem’s Moshe Ya’alon departed the Blue and White coalition for the opposition while Gantz and fellow party leader Gabi Ashkenazi, now the foreign minister, took their half of the faction into the Netanyahu-led coalition.