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Budgets, 3rd election, immunity, 4th election? Political dates to watch in 2020

The year’s calendar is already partially filled in as party lists close, Israelis vote, Netanyahu seeks immunity, Israelis maybe vote again…

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jokingly looks at his watch while speaking about peace in the Middle East at the National Building Museum November 9, 2015, in Washington, DC. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jokingly looks at his watch while speaking about peace in the Middle East at the National Building Museum November 9, 2015, in Washington, DC. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

Last month, as the Knesset Arrangements Committee voted on a bill that set March 2 as the date for Israel’s third election within a year, Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi suggested that lawmakers write into the legislation the date for a fourth election, which could already be calculated to fall on August 11.

He may have been being facetious (and it appears he was wrong in his calculation), but by finalizing the third election date, MKs automatically set in place much of the year’s political calendar.

This includes both the run-up to the election and its aftermath, and indeed the approximate date for a fourth national vote if no government is formed after the third.

Here are the key dates to look out for, and what to expect on them:

January 1: Budget breakdown

Lacking the necessary Knesset support, the transitional government has been unable to pass the 2020 budget — meaning that from the first day of 2020, government ministries have simply been allocated 1/12 of their annual 2019 budget per month, with no adjustment for any new developments.

With the annual budget — which in 2019 stood at NIS 480 billion ($139 billion) — normally growing by NIS 40 to 90 billion to take into account population growth and additional costs incurred, the frozen monthly allocation means that not only must long-term projects be put on hold, but so must payments and investments in basic services, non-governmental bodies and companies that receive government funding.

The lack of an annual budget also means that the government cannot address the national budget deficit, which surged to NIS 14 billion ($3.9 billion) in 2019, already causing a 1.75 percent slashing of ministerial budgets for the final months of last year.

People walk by a homeless man sleeping on the street, near cafes in the center of Jerusalem. November 10, 2013. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

January 1: Netanyahu’s immunity bid

Netanyahu had until midnight on the first day of the year to ask the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases against him, or he would have automatically forfeited the right to do so.

Announcing the decision in a nationally televised appearance four hours before the midnight deadline, Netanyahu made the move as protection from “trumped-up charges.” The premier has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases and bribery in one of them.

Though Netanyahu is far from guaranteed to receive the backing of a Knesset majority to support such a bid, merely asking for it will likely delay any potential trial by months. His request must by weighed by the Knesset House Committee before it can be voted upon by the plenum, but due to the lack of a functioning legislature amid an ongoing political deadlock, and with new elections set, the Knesset will likely only be able to review and decide on his request after a coalition is formed — if it is formed — following the March 2 vote.

January 5: Ministerial appointments

While Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ruled that Netanyahu does not have to resign as prime minister due to the charges being brought against him, the attorney general said the premier did have to relinquish his other posts — Israeli cabinet ministers facing criminal indictment are required to resign from their cabinet posts, though no such explicit order is outlined in Israeli law for prime ministers.

Netanyahu having announced on January 1 that he would step down from three additional ministerial portfolios that he holds, the official resignation will go into effect on January 5 when he is expected to name new ministers of welfare, agriculture and Diaspora affairs. Due to a now-defunct but not-yet-replaced coalition agreement from the 20th Knesset, one portfolio will go to a Shas lawmaker while the other two will go to Likud MKs.

Last Sunday, the cabinet approved the promotion of United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman, who has served for years as deputy health minister, to full health minister in Netanyahu’s stead.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud MK David Bitan at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on November 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

January 14-15: Party lists

Parties have roughly two more weeks before the deadline to file their slates for the March election. While no noteworthy new parties appear to have thrown their hats into the race, factions on both the right and the left are still expected to reshuffle or merge in an effort to end the political deadlock that has plagued the country for over a year.

On the right, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked are set on staging another independent run with their New Right party, which failed to cross the electoral threshold in April. However, Bennett got his wish last year in being appointed defense minister and is confident that the senior post is enough to ensure his party will make it into the Knesset this time around, without making the concessions necessitated by merging with other satellite parties to the right of Likud.

This decision has left the remaining national religious parties — Jewish Home, Otzma Yehudit and National Union — on their own to decide how they might best move forward. The former two wasted no time, with respective chairmen Rafi Peretz and Itamar Ben Gvir inking a deal to run as the United Jewish Home.

The crafty political move by the two less popular party leaders has placed National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich in the hot seat, as an independent run would almost certainly put his hardline party at risk of not crossing the electoral threshold. The transportation minister could accept Otzma-Jewish Home’s offer to join their slate and receive two spots on it for National Union candidates, but the Jewish Home-National Union-Otzma Yehudit formula was tested last April and only garnered five seats. Smotrich has hinted at taking his talents to the New Right, but it’s unlikely his brand will jive with the more religiously moderate electorate that Bennett and Shaked are seeking to attract.

(L-R) Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz announcing a merger between religious right-wing parties, to be called United Right, July 29, 2019. (Courtesy)

The situation is no less chaotic on the left as the Democratic Camp and Labor-Gesher parties have bickered over whether they need to make any changes to their slates ,which received just five and six seats, respectively, last March.

While many pundits have called for the two parties to merge, Democratic Camp may not make it to the negotiation table as a single unit either. The alliance of former prime minister Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party, Stav Shaffir’s Green Party and Nitzan Horowitz’s Meretz party is on the verge of a split, with Barak now back in retirement and Shaffir threatening an independent run over what she claims is an unwillingness of the Meretz old guard to allow for the enactment of significant changes necessary to return the left-wing party to political relevance.

February 19: Diplomats and emissaries vote

While the vast majority of Israel’s 6.3 million eligible voters will have to wait until March 2 before they can cast their ballot, some 5,000 Israelis stationed in 96 embassies and consulates around the world will have the opportunity to cast their votes three weeks early.

According to Israeli law, private citizens living abroad cannot vote unless they come to Israel. But an exception is made for diplomats also applies to emissaries sent abroad by the Jewish Agency, KKL-JNF, Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist Organization. In addition, their spouses and children (aged 18-20) can also cast a ballot abroad.

Anat Amichai, the wife of the head of security at Israel’s embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, casting the first vote in the elections for the 21th Knesset, in early polling allowed for diplomats and their families, March 28, 2019. (Israel Foreign Ministry)

All the voting envelopes are then sent to Jerusalem, where they are held in a safe until Election Day. After the polls close in Israel and the counting starts, the diplomats’ box will be counted as well.

March 2: Third election

As was likely the case in the year’s previous two elections, the March 2 vote will undoubtedly be characterized as a referendum on Netanyahu, whose legal position is as perilous as ever after Mandelblit’s November announcement of three indictments against the premier.

The polarized political reality appears poised for a further exacerbation with Netanyahu in recent months more openly targeting the legal officials responsible for determining his fate and his political opponents more aggressively targeting the Likud leader in turn.

Issues of religion and state that came to the forefront last April and September are unlikely to go away either and parties seem ready to once again ask secular and religious Israelis to pick sides.

Ballots lie on a table at a voting booth in Rosh Ha’ayin in Israel’s parliamentary elections, September 17, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Netanyahu spent much of the coalition-building process lambasting Blue and White for cooperating with the majority-Arab Joint List, which the prime minister insists is beyond the pale. This led to an uptick in anti-Arab rhetoric that is expected to once again come to a head on the campaign trail. In the last election, this was the case thanks to Netanyahu’s (ultimately unsuccessful) legislative push to allow party operatives to film in Arab community polling stations. With polls indicating that the Joint List will maintain its electoral success, if not build on it, expect it and the public it represents to once again find themselves in the cross-hairs of the majority of other Knesset factions who have deemed them personae non gratae.

March 4: Presidential consultations begin

Rivlin can begin consultations with party leaders and eventually task the candidate most likely to form a coalition to do so almost immediately after the election. March 4 is the first possible date to begin these sessions, according to The Times of Israel’s calculations, but they typically last several days.

Once a candidate is chosen by the president, that individual has 28 days to present a coalition to the new Knesset and win a vote of confidence. The president is allowed to extend that period by up to 14 days. If the candidate fails, the second-most likely candidate is given a 28-day shot of his or her own.

March 16: Knesset swearing-in

The pomp and circumstance will return to the Knesset as Rivlin opens parliament, accompanied by an honor guard on horseback and the IDF military band.

In the last ceremony, Rivlin used the opportunity to call on lawmakers to put aside their differences that were exacerbated during the election campaign so that a stable government could be formed. If urgency could be sensed in the president’s voice last October, it will surely be discernible this time around as sending Israelis back to the polls for a fourth time in less than two years would be even more untenable than having them vote three times within a year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the heads of the rest of the factions in the 22nd Knesset pose for a group picture during the opening ceremony of the newly election parliament, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At the last swearing-in, a record low eight MKs were installed for the first time. That record is expected to be broken once again in March, with few rookie candidates campaigning this time around.

June 8: The Knesset’s last chance to come together

If both prime ministerial candidates fail to form a coalition after using their full allotment of time, a final 21-day period is given whereby any Knesset member is eligible to collect the signatures of at least 61 of the 120 MKs recommending that he or she form a government.

If no lawmaker succeeds in doing so by June 8 or thereabouts, new elections will be called on the first Tuesday 90 days later.

If an MK does manage to garner the support of an absolute majority of Knesset members, he or she is given 14 days to try and form a coalition with the ostensible support of the same group that granted them the mandate to make the attempt. But if not enough of those MKs are willing to stick with their recommended candidate, and the nominee fails to build a government, then new elections will be called again.

Left to right: Members of the Joint List party MKs Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consultation with President Reuven Rivlin on who he should task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

September 8: Fourth elections?

The idea sounds crazy but so did the second and third elections. What’s more, recent polls indicate that the March vote will leave lawmakers in the same gridlock in which they currently find themselves, with neither Blue and White nor Likud along with their respective partner parties predicted to receive the majority support that they need to form a coalition.

Will Netanyahu be willing to part ways with his right-wing, religious bloc to form a unity government with Blue and White? Will Benny Gantz’s party be willing to swallow sitting in a government with a Likud leader under indictment or opt instead to lead a minority coalition reliant on outside support from the Joint List? These same questions that lawmakers grappled with this year will likely remain relevant if another election is called.

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