Citing broken agreements, Netanyahu says ‘no doubt’ elections are on the way

Amid budget crisis, government appears close to collapse, triggering fourth national vote in two years; PM says vaccine distribution plan to be ready next week

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony welcoming the first commercial flydubai flight to Israel, at Ben Gurion Airport, November 26, 2020 (Avi Ohayun/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony welcoming the first commercial flydubai flight to Israel, at Ben Gurion Airport, November 26, 2020 (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

In a sign of the nearing of the long-expected fall of the government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday that there was “no doubt” elections are coming, and blamed his coalition partners.

“When agreements are not respected on the part of Blue and White, there is no doubt that we are on the way to elections,” he said in response to a question about the snowballing rift between his Likud party and its coalition partner.

“If we see a different approach from the Blue and White side and cooperation within the government, instead of a government within a government, we can continue to work together. If not, everyone can understand that this will lead to elections,” the prime minister said, blaming Benny Gantz’s party for the breakdown in relations within the coalition.

Speculation of early elections has been rampant in recent days, with the government teetering amid a budget impasse and Gantz’s announcement last week of the formation of a government committee to investigate the so-called submarine affair that has ensnared several of Netanyahu’s allies.

Under the coalition deal between the Likud party, led by Netanyahu, and Blue and White, the two agreed to pass a budget running through 2021. Netanyahu, however, is now insisting on separate budgets for 2020 and 2021, with a failure to pass a budget allowing him to avoid handing the premiership over to Gantz and instead go to elections.

If the budget issue is not resolved by late December, early elections would automatically be called, the fourth in two years.

Frustrated by the deadlock, Gantz said earlier this month that he had instructed his party to gather together “all of the relevant bills that will advance equality, fight corruption and other values that are important to us.”

The move would potentially include putting forward legislation to limit the term of the prime minister or prevent a prime minister from serving under indictment — proposals that would likely have the backing of a majority of the Knesset if supported by Blue and White but go against the coalition agreement signed with Likud.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Responding to Netanyahu’s comments Thursday, Blue and White said it was the prime minister who was breaking the coalition agreement and that the public would blame him for going to new elections.

“The one who violates agreements, holds up appointments and deprives the state of a budget for months over political and personal motives is Benjamin Netanyahu,” the party said in a statement. “It’s not by chance that in polls the overwhelming majority of the public accuses Netanyahu of going to the polls, it’s because it’s true.”

According to a poll released by Channel 13 on Wednesday, in the case of elections being called, 44% of the public would blame Netanyahu, 31% would blame Netanyahu and Gantz equally, and 16% would blame only Gantz.

Gantz has also predicted that elections are on the way, telling Chanel 13 on Tuesday, “If Netanyahu continues to put his interests ahead of other interests, we will come to an election, and he will have to explain why there is no budget… his considerations are personal and not necessarily national.”

Netanyahu’s Thursday comments came during a tour of the central logistics center set up to deal with the distribution of millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines set to arrive in Israel in the coming months.

In his comments before taking questions, Netanyahu said that the plan for the distribution of the inoculations would be ready next week.

“We are here to see for ourselves our ability to supply or preserve the vaccines at low temperatures and then thaw them and bring them to the citizens of Israel,” the prime minister said at the Health Ministry-run Teva Sela Logistics Center in the central city of Shoham.

“I get the impression that there is a world-class factory here, a logistics center that is well-managed and can absorb the millions of vaccines we bring, together, and actually end the pandemic,” he said.

Netanyahu promised that “next week, the health minister will bring a professional team that will present to me and the defense minister the recommendations regarding how the vaccines will be distributed.”

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy at a press conference in Jerusalem about the coronavirus, July 13, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said Wednesday that most of the vaccine shipments would arrive in the first half of 2021, but that a first batch could come as early as December, seemingly shoring up an unconfirmed television report on Monday.

Levy said the ministry was working on delineating “ethically, legally and medically” which parts of the population would receive a coronavirus vaccine first.

Channel 12 had reported that Israel is expected to receive up to half a million doses of the Pfizer vaccine against the coronavirus as early as December, one month earlier than originally hoped for. According to the unsourced report, the country would receive between 200,000 and 500,000 doses and will devote them primarily to those working in the medical field, while the general population would not be vaccinated this winter.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu announced that Israel had signed a deal with Pfizer to purchase coronavirus vaccine shots, days after the US pharmaceutical firm said data suggested its vaccine was 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19.

As part of the agreement with Pfizer, Netanyahu said Israel would receive 8 million doses of the vaccine, enough to inoculate 4 million Israelis. Netanyahu expressed hope that Pfizer would begin supplying the vaccine in January, pending authorization from health officials in the United States and Israel.

Pursuing another avenue to procure vaccines, Netanyahu announced Friday that Israel was also close to signing a deal with AstraZeneca to purchase “millions” of doses of its vaccine.

Aner Ottolenghi receives the Israeli-developed Coronavirus vaccination at the Hadassah Ein Karem hospital in Jerusalem on November 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If signed, it would be the third deal signed by Israel to receive vaccinations, following the deal with Pfizer as well as an earlier one with Moderna. Israel has also been in talks with Russia to receive its Sputnik V vaccine, though some experts have questioned its opaque certification process.

However, none of the deals guarantees a deadline for the arrival of the vaccines, and with mass global demand, it is still not clear how many doses Israel will get, and when.

Israel has also been working on a home-grown vaccine, though it is currently only in phase 1 trials and its development is expected to take months longer than the foreign candidates. Channel 12 reported Friday that it will likely be available to the public this summer.

Netanyahu’s visit to the logistics center came after the Health Ministry announced Thursday morning that the number of new daily coronavirus cases diagnosed in Israel had risen to over a thousand, a level not seen in over a month.

The milestone is the latest indication that the spread of the virus may be re-accelerating, even as the government pushes ahead with reopening the country from its second lockdown.

There were 1,068 new cases diagnosed on Wednesday — 1.8 percent of the 60,463 test results returned, the ministry figures showed. The last time Israel saw daily cases above a thousand was October 22.

After topping 9,000 on Wednesday for the first time in nearly three weeks, the active number of coronavirus cases in the country rose to 9,422 out of a total 332,317 cases.

Magen David Adom worker takes a patient to the coronavirus unit at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem on November 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite the rising figures, cabinet ministers overnight approved a pilot plan to open 15 malls around the country.

Israel imposed a monthlong lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system. The government has since begun lifting the restrictions but health officials have sounded alarms as the drop in infection rates first slowed, and then reversed.

Outdoor market areas and some museums will also be allowed to reopen as part of the pilot plan, which aims to test the efficacy of virus safety guidelines.

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