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Blue and White MKs said to mull torpedoing deal that would stave off election

4 lawmakers from Gantz’s party reportedly won’t back bill for 2-week budget delay to allow more time for talks with Likud; coalition whip Zohar calls their move ‘political suicide’

Miki Haimovich with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/File)
Miki Haimovich with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/File)

A deal reportedly reached between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz to avoid the calling of elections this week appeared to be falling apart on Monday morning as several lawmakers from the defense minister’s party were said to be planning to vote against the proposal.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir will not support the proposed legislation to briefly delay the upcoming state budget deadline in order to give the sides two more weeks to hash out a deal and avoid going to elections for the fourth time in two years.

Additionally, the report said MKs Miki Haimovich and Ram Shefa were also considering not giving their support to the Blue and White-proposed legislation.

All three have previously publicly expressed their unease at their party remaining in partnership with Netanyahu.

Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, May 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zamir resigned from his ministerial position in October, citing the passage of controversial legislation to restrict protests and saying Netanyahu was more concerned by his legal woes than the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. That same month, Haimovich said a growing number of members of the party were considering dissolving the partnership with Netanyahu.

Shefa, along with Haimovich and Zamir, reportedly said last month that they could not trust the prime minister, and there was no point in staying in the coalition government.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) is seen with his back to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the Knesset approves a preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve parliament, December 2, 2020 (Danny Shem-Tov / Knesset spokesperson’s office)

On Monday afternoon, a fourth Blue and White MK joined the rebellion as Michal Cotler-Wunsh said that she was forced to weight the “bad” possibility of new elections “in the face of the intolerable reality of a dysfunctional government.”

Before the reported disagreements within Blue and White, it was already unclear whether there was a majority to pass the bill, even with Netanyahu’s support. The potential rebel Blue and White MKs, coupled with Likud members who have formed a new rival party under MK Gideon Sa’ar, mean that even if a compromise is reached, it will not necessarily have sufficient support in the Knesset to pass.

Sa’ar slammed the government on Monday, saying the budget was being rushed through by a government without the interests of its citizens at heart.

“There has been no other government in Israel that has looted the Knesset, belittled its citizens and damaged the fabric of democratic and state life like this government,” Sa’ar charged. “The citizens of Israel deserve a government that has the good of the state and its citizens at its forefront.”

In an interview with Kan on Monday, coalition whip Miki Zohar of Netanyahu’s Likud party accused Blue and White of committing “political suicide,” saying his party was not concerned about its prospects if the country went to the polls.

MK Miki Zohar during an arrangements committee meeting at the Knesset on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I do not want to talk about political calculations about who will have a majority, because I think the elections should be avoided,” Zohar said. “But unfortunately, Blue and White is… acting in a manner of political suicide. We have no fear of going to the polls.”

Until several weeks ago, Zohar and other Likud members had been repeatedly telling the media that the partnership with Blue and White wasn’t working and that elections were needed.

Reports of an agreement between Likud and Blue and White came on Sunday evening after the latter party appeared to waver in its ultimatum to Netanyahu’s party to pass the budget by Tuesday’s deadline or face a fresh vote.

A statement from Blue and White said the party would start the process Monday to advance a bill to delay the deadline to pass a budget for this year from December 23 to December 31. The deadline for approving a budget covering 2021 would be January 5.

Blue and White said if the budgets aren’t passed by those deadlines, the Knesset will dissolve and elections will be held on March 23, even though analysts have suggested Israeli law doesn’t allow for elections to be held less than three months after the Knesset dissolves.

The new initiative came as a TV poll showed Gantz’s party, which won 33 seats in March’s elections, would struggle to return to the Knesset at all if elections were held now.

Under the power-sharing deal between Likud and Blue and White, a failure to pass a budget is the lone loophole in the rotation agreement that would let Netanyahu avoid having to give up the premiership to Gantz. Likud has been holding up the budget for months in an effort to renegotiate a more favorable coalition agreement that would see Netanyahu’s one-and-half-year term extended at the expense of Gantz’s equivalent allotment of time as premier, which is currently set to begin in November 2021. Likud is also seeking to curb the power of Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn.

Blue and White also said that simultaneously it will hold talks with Likud “to bring a functioning government, with a budget that millions of Israelis need right now, appointments [of senior officials] while safeguarding the rule of law and the prime minister’s lack of influence on his trial.”

If understandings aren’t reached to uphold the coalition agreement, Blue and White said it would yank the proposal and the Knesset will dissolve Tuesday at midnight.

Lawmakers in the Knesset plenum on December 9, 2020. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)

Underscoring the difficulties the sides will face to reach an agreement, Likud and Blue and White continued to snipe at each other on Sunday evening with both parties referring to the other side as “delusional.”

This would be the second time that Blue and White has backed off an election ultimatum after the parties reached a last-minute deal in August to avert early elections and delay the budget deadline until December 23.

Earlier Sunday, Blue and White denied that an agreement to stave off elections had been reached with Likud that included reducing Nissenkorn’s powers.

Fierce disagreements between Gantz and Nissenkorn were reported by Channel 12, with the defense minister charging overnight that Nissenkorn “is more concerned with his own job than with Blue and White.”

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn seen during a visit at the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu was said to be primarily interested in preventing Nissenkorn from appointing a state attorney and attorney general — two positions seen as critical to the prime minister, whose criminal trial is slated to resume soon — and new Supreme Court judges of his liking. Nissenkorn also opposes efforts by Netanyahu allies to reform the justice system, appoint more conservative judges and limit the power of the courts more broadly.

Blue and White sources told the Haaretz daily that the party would insist on closing the loophole that allows Netanyahu to avoid handing over power to Gantz by withholding the state budget. The sources acknowledged the chances for Likud agreeing to that were not high, but added that Netanyahu could agree to it in light of unflattering recent opinion polls.

While Blue and White has asserted that Likud should be expected to adhere to the agreement that the parties signed, Netanyahu’s faction is seen to be taking advantage of Gantz’s slate’s almost complete decline in the polls since he decided last March to abandon his main election promise and serve in a Netanyahu-led government, after declaring for months that the Likud leader could not be trusted.

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