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Coalition chair: If nothing dramatic changes in next 48 hours, it’s elections

Likud’s Miki Zohar asserts Blue and White is ‘obstructing PM in extracting Israel from the coronavirus crisis,’ says inter-party dysfunction, not budget, at heart of crisis

Likud MK Miki Zohar at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Likud MK Miki Zohar at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel appears to be barreling toward a new election, coalition chairman Miki Zohar (Likud) said Friday morning, blaming the Blue and White party for the impasse and claiming they were hindering the prime minister’s efforts to combat the coronavirus crisis.

He also indicated that it was the government’s general dysfunction, rather than the disagreement over the state budget, that was threatening to bring down the government merely three months after its formation.

“We don’t want elections,” Zohar told 103FM Radio, “But we also don’t want to carry on in the way things are with [Blue and White], where we feel they are simply obstructing the prime minister in extracting Israel from the coronavirus crisis.

“We in Likud are not saying we are prepared to compromise with Blue and White, because we simply feel we don’t have a true partner that wants to maintain a coalition with us.”

There are only three days to go until the deadline to pass a national budget or a bill to delay its passage. With the passage of the budget seen as impossible with the time left to do so, the only realistic option is giving final approval to a bill to delay the budget deadline by 100 days. Such a bill has been approved in its first of three plenum readings, but Likud is making various demands in order to support its final passage. If the coalition fails to get the bill through by Monday night, the government will automatically fall and new elections will be called.

“If nothing dramatic changes in the next 48 hours… it looks like elections,” Zohar said.

Under the laws passed to form the coalition, failure to pass a 2021 budget by next March would force new elections.

Blue and White has accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of deliberately attempting to violate the coalition agreement with his sudden demand for a one-year budget in order leave himself a future window to dissolve the government and avoid having to hand over the prime minister post to Defense Minister Benny Gantz next year, as the coalition deal also stipulates.

Netanyahu has been reported to be demanding various changes to his party’s coalition agreement with Blue and White to protect his status as his criminal trial moves forward, as well as to assert more power over the justice and law enforcement systems. He is reportedly demanding greater power over senior appointments, including of top law enforcement officials, in contravention of previous agreements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Zohar denied Netanyahu had any interest in hampering legal proceedings against him, maintaining that the prime minister was insisting on a one-year budget — instead of the two-year program that had been agreed upon — as he had determined that this was the best way forward for Israel’s economy.

Top economists have backed Gantz’s call for a two-year budget, saying there would now be little point for a 2020 budget just a few months before the year’s end.

“No one wants to cancel any trial,” Zohar said. “This government isn’t functioning.” He asserted that the power-sharing coalition the sides had agreed upon “is preventing us from advancing what our public believes in, and we represent a huge public… If they don’t change their attitude and understand Likud’s needs it’s very possible that on Monday at midnight will find ourselves in another election campaign.”

Meanwhile, Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked told the radio station she believed the sides would eventually agree on a budget delay, warning that Netanyahu should not count on her party’s support since he spurned it to form a government with Blue and White months ago, relegating it to the opposition.

“The political reality changed once Netanyahu decided to break up the right-wing bloc,” she said. “We are an independent party that presents an alternative, value-based leadership.”

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz’s partner in Blue and White’s leadership, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, tweeted Friday morning the party remained committed “to doing the right thing for Israel and its people… no games, no tricks, no shticks, no backing down.”

Tweeting a photo of a faction outing Friday morning, Gantz used similar language. “We’re not about games and tricks, but about respect and values,” he wrote.

President Reuven Rivlin has spoken in recent days with coalition party leaders with the goal of preventing another election, the President’s Residence said Thursday.

Rivlin met Netanyahu and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party leader Yaakov Litzman, and spoke on the phone with Gantz, Shas leader Aryeh Deri and UTJ No. 2 Moshe Gafni, according to the statement.

He told the politicians that “it is unthinkable that the issue of approving the state budget will lead us to a fourth election.

“The public’s trust in its elected officials will hit an extreme low in the case of another election,” the president added. “After three election cycles in less than a year, we, the citizens, feel deceived and fearful.”

Apparently alluding to widespread suspicions that Netanyahu is interested in elections to avoid having to hand over the premiership to Gantz in November 2021, he added: “If we are doomed to go to another election, we must make sure that we go to it with full transparency, with the public understanding the exact reason. We mustn’t allow the budget to be the reason.”

Army Radio reported Thursday morning that Blue and White was formulating an offer that would see senior law enforcement appointments frozen for an additional period until a mechanism for those nominations is finalized.

More importantly, the plan would include the immediate appointment of a new interim state attorney instead of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who currently holds the temporary role.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Netanyahu, livid at Mandelblit for announcing corruption charges against him in three criminal cases, tried unsuccessfully to prevent him from becoming interim state attorney when Shai Nitzan’s tenure ended in December. Replacing Mandelblit as interim state attorney is one of the premier’s goals.

According to the reported Blue and White proposal, Mandelblit’s replacement will be announced soon, with the agreement of both parties, and will serve until a full-time state attorney is picked.

Likud and Blue and White members continued to badmouth each other in interviews Thursday.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn attacked Likud for its “obsessive” concern with the identity of the state attorney and “politicization” of law enforcement appointments.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu is beating his head against a wall,” he told Army Radio.

“The issue isn’t a single-year budget anymore,” Blue and White’s Science Minister Izhar Shay told Army Radio. “If someone wants to drag us to elections, they will find any way to do that.”

Likud’s Public Security Minister Amir Ohana told the station: “I don’t expect this government to function more than reasonably well, but we don’t currently have that. There is no mutual trust.”

Gantz said Wednesday that his party was making every effort to solve the crisis, but said it would not compromise on its core tenets to do so.

An unnamed senior official in Likud lashed out on Wednesday at Blue and White over the ongoing coalition crisis, suggesting lawmakers were unlikely to stave off the collapse of the government.

“This business isn’t working. From the start I didn’t have high expectations, but I didn’t think it would be like this. It’s impossible to work,” the unnamed official said of the coalition, according to Hebrew-language media reports. “Will we go to elections on Monday? This government is not functioning. Continuing in the current situation is even worse than elections.”

Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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