Bill to push off budget deadline and avert elections approved for first reading

Knesset Finance Committee sends legislation to the plenum after rowdy meeting, during which opposition MKs cudgel coalition members for ‘trolling the country’

Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser, left, speaking during a Knesset Finance Committee meeting, August 17, 2020. (Knesset Channel screenshot)
Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser, left, speaking during a Knesset Finance Committee meeting, August 17, 2020. (Knesset Channel screenshot)

The Knesset Finance Committee on Monday approved for its first reading a bill that will grant the coalition government more time to pass the national budget, averting elections by enabling it to bypass an approaching deadline that is just days away.

The bill, proposed by Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser, must pass three readings before it becomes law, but its future is uncertain as Likud has not yet committed to supporting it in its second and third readings.

It was expected to be brought for a first reading in the Knesset later Monday. As the bill requires changing the country’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, it must pass with a majority of 61 out of the 120 lawmakers in the Knesset.

Members of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party were to hold a meeting before the vote to decide whether its seven MKs would back the bill or oppose it, as some of them did during it preliminary reading last week. UTJ is in favor of swiftly passing a budget rather than a further delay.

The deadline for the budget is August 25. Under the terms of the bill, that limit would be put off by 100 days until December 3. If the bill or the budget is not passed by August 25 the country automatically goes to elections in what would be the fourth vote in less than two years.

UTJ leader Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman spoke with President Reuven Rivlin Monday, telling him, “We must unite in a joint national effort to prevent going to elections again.”

“It is unthinkable to have another election campaign during this difficult period, when the economy is in crisis, the infection rate is high and citizens expect the leadership to show responsibility for the people’s needs,” Litzman told Rivlin.

Last week UTJ allowed its MKs to vote freely on the bill in its preliminary reading, with Litzman reportedly urging them to oppose the bill in order to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into reaching an agreement to pass the budget before the August deadline. UTJ wants the budget passed soon to enable funds to reach cash-strapped ultra-Orthodox yeshivas which are a key part of community life.

With the the support of the Knesset’s other Haredi party Shas, the bill is expected to pass the plenum vote. But Likud has not committed to supporting it beyond the first reading as it and Blue and White continue to wrangle over the terms of maintaining their troubled coalition.

Newly appointed housing minister and former health minister Yaakov Litzman, at his installation ceremony at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)

During Monday’s Finance Committee meeting a rowdy clash developed between Derech Eretz’s Hauser and opposition MKs, who oppose the delay in approving the budget.

“What has stopped you from approving the budget until now?” MK Ram Ben-Barak of the opposition Yesh Atid party challenged Hauser.

Fellow Yesh Atid MK Miki Levy fumed that the coalition was made up of “a gang of good-for-nothings.”

Hauser said: “I understand that the purpose of the opposition, or what it seeks, is to punish the coalition, but it must not punish the people. You know that we can’t pass a budget in seven days, so stop lying to the public. Take a look at the public, show maturity and solidarity with the public and help prevent elections.”

Levy shot back: “Pass the budget, stop trolling the country.” Ben Barak wondered: “What happened over the previous 100 days?”

Representatives of Likud and Blue and White met Sunday night to try and solve the budget crisis, though they reportedly made little progress.

The prime minister — who formed a unity government with Blue and White’s leader Benny Gantz after three rounds of elections failed to yield a clear winner — has been rumored to be seeking another national vote, amid continuous disagreements within the government and to avoid a handover of power in a little over a year, which will see Gantz become prime minister in his stead.

Were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, Netanyahu said Sunday to Army Radio, the coalition might already have collapsed.

The focus of the dispute has been the state budget. Gantz has insisted on a budget through 2021, as the coalition deal between the parties stipulates, while Netanyahu is insisting on one that only covers the rest of 2020, citing the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a Channel 12 report last week, Netanyahu was also demanding that Gantz agree to several changes to the coalition deal on matters unrelated to the budget as a condition for keeping the government intact.

The TV report said Netanyahu wants the accord be altered so elections are automatically called should the High Court of Justice disqualify him from serving as alternate prime minister after he hands over the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. The current deal only gives Netanyahu protection for the first six months of the government’s existence.

He is also reportedly demanding that the agreement to form a professional committee for appointing senior legal officials — such as the state attorney and the chief of police — be canceled, with that power returning to politicians. In entering Netanyahu’s government, Blue and White had argued the move would enable it to protect the independence of democratic institutions and law enforcement.

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