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Gantz, Netanyahu said to agree on last-ditch bill to delay budget, avert ballot

With Knesset set to dissolve Tuesday night, Blue and White propose legislation for a two-week stay on budget deadline to allow more time for talks to stave off new elections

Defense Minister Benny Gantz of Blue and White in the Knesset plenum on December 9, 2020. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz of Blue and White in the Knesset plenum on December 9, 2020. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly agreed late Sunday to support a proposal by the Blue and White party to put forward legislation to briefly delay the upcoming state budget deadline and avoid going to new elections.

Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz agreed to the move, which would give the two sides two more weeks to hash out a deal and avoid going to elections for the fourth time in two years, multiple Hebrew language reports said.

However, it was unclear if there was a majority to pass the new Blue and White bill, even with Netanyahu’s support.

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

A statement from Blue and White said it 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 then, the Knesset will dissolve and elections will be held on March 23.

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 in November 2021. 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. Likud is also seeking to curb the influence 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.

Benny Gantz, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset during a vote for the parliament to dissolve itself, on December 2, 2020. (Danny 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,

“If someone believes Likud will agree to return to a ‘government within a government,’ he’s delusional,” the party wrote in a tweet shared by Netanyahu, apparently referring to Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn’s influence over top law enforcement and judicial appointments — which has become a central bone of contention between Blue and White and Likud.

Blue and White swiftly hit back, saying it wouldn’t agree to Netanyahu’s reported demands to give Likud greater powers over these appointments.

“If someone thinks that Blue and White will agree to give a criminal defendant a hand in the matter of appointing judges and senior law enforcement officials, he is delusional,” the party tweeted, referring to Netanyahu’s indictment on graft charges.

Opposition MKs mocked Gantz, who had demanded a two-year budget be passed by December 23, for backing down.

“Gantz — a reusable rag. That’s how it is when a [ministerial] seat comes before everything,” Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman tweeted.

MK Ayman Odeh, head of the predominantly Arab Joint List, invoked the television series “Fauda” and Gantz’s military career.

“I admit that I didn’t see Fauda, but I don’t remember hearing the chief of staff surrenders in the end,” Odeh wrote on Twitter.

This would be the second time that Blue and White has backed off an election ultimatum.

In August, the parties reached a last-minute deal 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.

An unsourced report by the Haaretz daily claimed Gantz had agreed to clip Nissenkorn’s wings in exchange for closing the budget loophole. The report said there was opposition to the move within Blue and White, including from its No. 2, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and that it was unclear whether the deal could be approved by the party.

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 is 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.

A joint statement issued by Gantz, Ashkenazi, and Nissenkorn alleged that “the media publications are false and don’t reflect Blue and White’s conduct. We won’t compromise on maintaining a functioning government while safeguarding democracy and law enforcement bodies and guaranteeing a state budget that will take care of the economic coronavirus [fallout]. Any report or spin invented by interested parties is the sole responsibility of the reporter. Enough with the lies.”

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.

Blue and White sources told Haaretz 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.

Gideon Sa’ar visits Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem on December 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Not all members of Blue and White are happy with the negotiations, and many of them are reportedly preparing to oppose a deal with Likud if one is reached or even to resign. Coupled with several rebel Likud members who have formed a new rival party under MK Gideon Sa’ar, that means even if a compromise is reached, it will not necessarily have a sufficient majority of supporters in the Knesset.

According to a Channel 13 news poll aired Sunday, Blue and White would slump to five seats if fresh elections are called, the lowest of any party that cleared the 3.5 percent threshold in the survey.

Sa’ar’s New Hope party was projected to be the second largest party with 19 seats, while the survey said Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties would lack a majority.

Gantz was said to have met Sa’ar on Saturday night.

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