As new elections agreed, parties get set for fresh campaigns with budget boost

MKs okay pumping millions of extra shekels of state funds into coffers of factions, some of whom are debt-ridden, as candidates prepare to pitch voters for third time in a year

A general view of the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
A general view of the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

For the third time in less than a year, Israelis woke Thursday morning to a disbanded Knesset and parties gearing up for a fresh round of elections coming in less than three months.

In its final act after a midnight deadline to solve a coalition deadlock expired, the Knesset passed a law setting the election for March 2, and gave parties tens of millions of more shekels than in previous campaigns to spend on bombarding the public with their pitches for votes.

Lawmakers had spent the previous months vowing to solve the political crisis and avoid a third election, and spent much of Wednesday trading blame for the failure of coalition talks.

“Make sure you keep your kids away from the TV for the next three months, so they won’t see what the elected officials are saying,” Blue and White MK Yair Lapid said in a debate before the vote. “What used to be a celebration of democracy has become a moment of shame for this building.”

Following the dissolution of the Knesset on Thursday and the calling of new elections for March 2020 — the third in less than a year — political parties kicked off their campaigns having added millions more to their usual budgets from the state coffers.

The law calling the election, the only piece of legislation passed by the short-lived 22nd Knesset, also sets state funding of NIS 63 million ($18 million) for the process, with each party receiving an additional NIS 700,000 ($200,000) per Knesset faction and NIS 430,000 ($124,000) per MK.

The new budget represents a 30 percent increase over the previous election’s funding. Legislators explained the budget increase in that the repeat national polls until now had caused smaller parties to accrue considerable debts, and they would need to extra funds in order to both pay those debts and fund the new campaign.

Two parties, Shas and Yisrael Beytenu, opposed the budget increase.

The campaign is expected to be dominated by criminal charges facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with a recent poll showing rival Blue and White gaining slightly on the ruling party. However, most estimations show the right and left-wing blocs remaining virtually as they were, leading some to fear the prospect of deadlock continuing after the March vote.

Netanyahu, who has faced calls to resign, is thought to be seeking a parliamentary majority for immunity for the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the cases.

By law, a sitting prime minister charged with a crime is not required to step down. But ministers under indictment must resign and Netanyahu, who holds four portfolios, including health, agriculture and welfare, notified the Supreme Court on Thursday that he would give up each ministry by the new year. The letter to the court stressed that Netanyahu would continue serving as prime minister.

Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief, Benny Gantz, right, speaking separately at a media conference in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Hadash Parush/Flash90)

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has refused to serve under a prime minister with such serious legal problems and called on Likud to choose a different leader.

Netanyahu will first face an internal challenge from Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar — and possibly others, in a December 26 leadership contest.

Other parties may also seek to shuffle their slates ahead of a January 15 deadline to submit their final lists to the Central Elections Committee.

Any petition to bar a party or lawmaker from running — as has happened in the recent votes with the Arab Balad party and the far-right Otzma Yehudit — will be reviewed and decided upon by the High Court of Justice on February 1.

Despite the fact that the Knesset has been at a virtual standstill since December 2018, when it first voted to disband and call new elections, MKs’ salaries are set to increase by 3%-3.5% in January, coming to NIS 45,339 ($13,000) a month, the Ynet news site reported. Knesset members’ salaries are updated once a year in January according to average wages in the country.

The new election was called after Netanyahu and Gantz both failed in their attempts to form governments after the September vote, the latest twist in a sprawling and unprecedented crisis that has left the country in political limbo for a year.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (C) looks on as he sits next to other MKs while the Knesset debates its dissolution late on December 11, 2019. (Gali TIBBON / AFP)

Elections are usually set for at least 90 days after the dissolution of the legislature. But with March 10 falling on the Jewish festival on Purim and various other calendar considerations, MKs eventually finalized a bill setting the elections earlier, on March 2.

The final second and third readings of the motion to dissolve passed by 96 in favor with seven against. Netanyahu, who was absent from earlier proceedings, showed up for the votes that were passed just before 3:30 a.m. Thursday.

Over the past 21 days, lawmakers also had the opportunity to nominate any MK for a shot at forming a government by gathering 61 signatures, but no such candidate was nominated.

The April 2019 election made history when by the end of May it became the first-ever Israeli election that failed to produce a government. At the time, Netanyahu was short just one vote of a majority. Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman had refused to join over disagreements on the ultra-Orthodox enlistment law with Netanyahu’s Haredi political allies, precipitating the repeat vote in the fall.

Liberman vowed to support only a secularist coalition that included both Likud and Blue and White.

Following both elections, neither Gantz’s Blue and White nor Netanyahu’s Likud had enough allies to form a government without the other or the support of the Yisrael Beytenu party, but the two parties could not finalize the terms for a unity coalition.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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