Votes move Lapid closer to taking over as premier in 2023

Coalition leaders fete approval of budgets, putting wind in their sails

PM declares Israel now ‘back on track’ after Knesset approves first state budget in over 3 years; Meretz minister says gov’t can get on with ‘normal life,’ but warns of pitfalls

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to reporters at the Knesset on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to reporters at the Knesset on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition members on Friday hailed their approval of budgets for 2021 and 2022, the first national budgets to be approved in more than three years following a prolonged political crisis.

“Tonight, we got Israel back on track,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wrote on Twitter shortly after the 2022 budget passed in the early hours of Friday morning. The 2021 budget was passed in the early hours of Thursday morning, both following marathon sessions of voting on hundreds of clauses.

Approval of the annual budgets was a key test for the ideologically disparate coalition, averting the possibility of an imminent snap election and helping stabilize the government. It also proved the ruling alliance — which includes right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties plus an Islamist faction — can come together on major issues, and dashed opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s best hope of quickly scuppering the coalition that ousted him in June.

“We took responsibility. We fulfilled our promise,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said after the budgets were approved.

The votes move Lapid closer to taking over as premier in August 2023, as agreed in the power-sharing agreement with Bennett.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whose short-lived rotation government with Netanyahu dissolved last year over its failure to pass a budget, claimed vindication.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the Knesset on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I feel that the passage of the budget is a victory for the country, but also a personal victory for me,” Gantz tweeted. “Those who acted out of personal interests and caused great damage to the country and its citizens are in the opposition, and those who look out for Israeli citizens are in the coalition.”

Netanyahu, who ruled Israel for over 12 years and clung to power through a series of close-fought elections in 2019-21, is widely believed to have blocked attempts to pass a budget in 2020 in order to dissolve the coalition with Gantz and avoid handing him the premiership as they had agreed. That fight led directly to the collapse of the last government and the most recent election, the results of which saw Netanyahu ousted from office in June.

“The opposition conspiracy to drag Israel to fifth elections has failed,” said Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. “We’ve moved away from the abyss and put Israel back on a path of stability and working for the citizens.”

Netanyahu has vowed to continue to fight to oust what he has called a dangerous and dishonest government, but his prospects of doing so are now much reduced, and there will be a new focus now on his capacity to hold together the opposition. Former Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has openly vowed to challenge Netanyahu’s leadership of Likud. But the former prime minister is bolstered by opinion polls that suggest rising support for Likud, even as Netanyahu’s trial in three corruption cases continues.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said the coalition could now get on with “normal life,” while drawing attention to the internal divides that could yet cause its unraveling.

“The whole issue of relations with the Palestinians and settlements is at the heart of the divisions in the coalition,” Zandberg, a member of the left-wing Meretz party, told Kan public radio. “We expect that we won’t be surprised and there won’t be building that endangers the two-state solution.”

On the opposition side, the budget’s passage was denounced by United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have said some of the tax hikes in the budget will affect their communities the most.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu (R) walks past Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during voting on the state budget, November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This budget is the buying of power at an unparalleled cost,” he said, arguing that the budget “imposes economic cuts on the public and harms the country’s Jewish identity.”

“This government’s destiny is to collapse. It has no right to exist,” Maklev added.

Shas, another opposition ultra-Orthodox party, also denounced the budgets as a “brutal and intentional blow to the elderly, the disadvantaged and residents of the periphery, and families with lots of children.”

“Shas will continue to fight with all its might against an illegitimate government that is headed by a man who doesn’t pass the minimum electoral threshold [in polls], a government that works for societal destruction and the ruination of the Jewish character,” Shas said in a statement.

The passage of the two budgets was seen as a rebuke of Netanyahu, who had predicted that the coalition would be unable to effectively run the country given the competing ideologies at play.

Knesset members attend a plenum session and a vote on the state budget in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 3, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The coalition gave final approval to the NIS 573 billion ($183 billion) state budget for 2022 shortly after 3 a.m. Friday, far ahead of its March 2022 deadline. The 2021 budget voted through early on Thursday was far more urgent for the coalition, since a failure to pass it by its November 14 deadline would have meant the automatic dissolution of parliament.

The NIS 609 billion ($194 billion) spending plan for 2021 was the first budget Israel passed since 2018. The new legislation includes a wide range of reforms to lower the cost of living, ease regulations, reform the agricultural sector, raise the retirement age for women, implement banking reforms, increase the education budget and improve health care, among other measures.

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