Blue and White said to threaten to ‘act as opposition’ if budget not advanced

Amid deepening rift within government, Gantz reportedly tells associates his party will not be beholden to coalition agreements if Knesset vote not held on budget by November’s end

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press briefing, July 27, 2020 (Gobi Gideon/GPO)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press briefing, July 27, 2020 (Gobi Gideon/GPO)

Blue and White has reportedly warned that should the dysfunction in the coalition continue and a state budget for 2021 fail to advance in the Knesset by the end of November, the centrist party will “act as an opposition” within the government.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, who has gone head-to-head with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent months over the budget, told close associates over the weekend that if it does not pass its first reading in parliament by next month, his party will no longer be beholden to the coalition agreement that set up the government.

Responding to the report, Finance Minister Israel Katz of Netanyahu’s Likud party, told Kan radio Sunday that Blue and White was “keeping the budget hostage to their political considerations.”

Israel has limped through 2020 without a state budget, even though the coalition agreement signed by Blue and White and the Likud in April provided for a two-year 2020-21 budget to be passed in the summer.

While the initial budget deadline had been in August, with a failure to pass the 2020-2021 budget by then requiring the Knesset to dissolve, Likud and Blue and White agreed to a last-minute compromise that gave the parties 100 more days. That expires on December 23.

Speaking to Kan on Sunday morning, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman slammed the deadlock, saying, “There is no other country in the world that has not yet approved a budget for 2020 — this is an Israeli record. Most OECD countries have already approved a budget for 2021.”

Netanyahu’s critics assert he is bent on preventing Gantz from becoming prime minister in November 2021, as agreed upon in their coalition deal.

One of the few loopholes in that agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz that would prevent the Blue and White chairman from replacing Netanyahu after a year and a half would be if the parties failed to pass a budget, thus sparking early elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with then-Foreign Minister Israel, now Finance Minister, Israel Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, October 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP)

On Saturday night, Gantz said he would weigh his options if the budget was not passed in the coming weeks.

“The next few weeks will signal to me if there is an intention [on the government’s part] to work for the citizens,” Gantz told Channel 12 in an interview.” If this does not happen… if the government does not function, I will have no choice but to think of the coming steps.”

Blue and White joined the government so it could “function in an emergency situation,” Gantz said in reference to his surprise decision in April to join a Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition, weeks into Israel’s first COVID-19 lockdown. The decision followed three rounds of national elections in which no clear winner emerged.

“What we are finding is that the government is not functioning. We are fighting from within and will continue to fight for the government to function,” Gantz said, adding that the country’s priorities should supersede those of Netanyahu or his Likud party. The Blue and White chairman said he wanted to see the government functioning as a coalition made up of its different parties, preparing a state budget and convening its ministerial committee on legislative matters. “If not — I will weigh all alternatives,” he said.

Progress on new state attorney

In one of the ongoing disagreements between Blue and White and Likud, Gantz claimed victory Sunday morning in the battle to appoint the next state attorney, a move that had ostensibly been blocked by the coalition agreement.

Reversing a previous decision that no committee to name a state attorney can currently be formed due to bureaucratic difficulties, Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz said Sunday that due to its importance, the process of finding someone to fill the key post would begin immediately.

Civil Service commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz attends a State Control committee meeting in the Knesset, on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

“There is no doubt about the great importance I see for filling significant positions in the civil service. Therefore, without ignoring the aforementioned difficulty, out of my duty to ensure the proper functioning of governmental systems, I have decided to approve at this stage the job posting and examination of candidates’ eligibility,” Hershkowitz wrote in a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. He had previously said that the committee could not be formed because the acting director-general of the Justice Ministry, Sigal Yaakobi, could not participate due to her temporary status, representing a conflict of interest.

“It will be clarified that the said approval was given due to the exceptional circumstances and the special and unprecedented situation, taking into account the characteristics of the position and its importance,” Hershkowitz added.

Taking to Twitter, Gantz said in response, “We promised, and we fulfilled.”

In the government coalition agreement, the Likud and Blue and White parties agreed to put off any senior nominations that they were likely to clash over. However, earlier this month Gantz said it was time to end the “chaos” in the government and fill senior law enforcement posts that have long been manned by temporary appointments.

Netanyahu, on trial in three corruption cases, is seen as unlikely to agree to the Blue and White minister’s preferred pick for the state attorney post.

Israel has been without a permanent state attorney since December 2019, with the end of Shai Nitzan’s term. Mandelblit has been serving as acting state attorney in recent months.

Similarly, the Israel Police has also been without a commissioner since December 2018 with the end of Roni Alsheich’s term. Alsheich too was a key figure in the Netanyahu probes and thus reviled by Netanyahu and Likud as one of the figures the premier claims was involved in an attempted coup against him. Motti Cohen has been acting police chief since Alsheich’s departure and has had his tenure extended several times.

Gantz, in his Sunday tweet, vowed that “the next step is to start the process of appointing a commissioner.”

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