Coalition row deepens as Netanyahu ally calls Blue and White ‘danger to nation’

Gantz’s party dismisses Miki Zohar’s ‘blabbering’; Lapid says Monday’s no-confidence vote to replace coalition is a ‘simple decision’; Derech Eretz MK seemingly nixes possibility

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/Flash90)

Claims Blue and White is negotiating to form an alternative coalition generated fresh political infighting on Sunday, with a key ally of the prime minister saying the centrist party was no longer a partner with Likud in the government and represented a “danger to the nation.”

“Blue and White made a deal with [Yesh Atid chief Yair] Lapid on the formation of a minority government with Balad and the Joint List. It turns out that they once again returned to the option of Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi,” Likud MK Miki Zohar claimed, naming two politicians from the majority-Arab party. “Blue and White are no longer coalition partners, but a danger to the nation.”

Blue and White responded, saying: “Miki, even in Likud you are not taken seriously. Keep blabbering on because this is the only thing you know how to do, and not very successfully either.”

Since the government was formed it has been riven by squabbling between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White. Zohar’s statement came a day before a long-shot no-confidence measure is to be brought to the Knesset by Yesh Atid chief and opposition leader Yair Lapid, which would bring about the dissolution of the coalition if it wins 61 votes — a highly unlikely scenario.

Likud MK Miki Zohar reacts during a meeting at the Knesset, January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“In the end it is a simple decision. Either they express confidence in the failed Netanyahu or they do not trust him. Everything else is excuses from cowardly politicians. Tomorrow is the test,” tweeted Lapid.

The opposition’s right-wing Yamina party has said it would not back the measure.

Lapid has called on Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to break coalition ranks to vote alongside the opposition, and has asked the Labor party, which joined the ruling coalition despite campaign pledges against doing so, to do the same. Gantz and Ashkenazi are both former partners of Lapid who split up the centrist list to join Netanyahu’s government.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem is pictured during an interview with AFP at his office in the Knesset, Jerusalem, on September 14, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

MK Meir Cohen of Yesh Atid told Army Radio that they were working to convince their former partners to join them in the vote.

“This is neither a gimmick nor a farce, this is an opportunity. Everything is being done to convince the Blue and White party. We see what is happening and cannot believe that we have degenerated into such a difficult reality,” she said.

However, contrary to the picture painted by Yesh Atid, support from Blue and White and Labor would not be enough to achieve a Knesset majority. In fact, no alternative coalition is likely without the support of such diametrically opposed parties as Yamina and Meretz, or the Arab Joint List and hard-right Yisrael Beytenu. Lapid has also not detailed who would lead such a government, a likely point of contention.

An unnamed Blue and White source, speaking to the Kan news outlet on Saturday, said party members were in talks with unnamed Likud lawmakers over the possibility of setting up an alternative government should the current one fall.

Also Saturday, Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s top rival in the Likud party, quit his post in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, saying emergency virus regulations had turned the legislature into a rubber stamp for the government.

The outlet also reported that Blue and White was trying to line up support from lawmakers Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel to back a minority government that would be supported by the Joint List from outside the government as another possibility.

The two rightist lawmakers have balked at that option in the past due to the presence of the Palestinian nationalist Balad faction within the Joint List party, and on Sunday Hauser reaffirmed his position.

MK Zvi Hauser at a Knesset committee meeting on May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We have principles and we do not change them,” Hauser said in a video posted online. “Lapid wants to troll the country again and try to form a government with the Joint List. We have a lot in common with Israeli Arabs, but we have nothing in common with Balad and their partners — those who at every opportunity are in favor of Hamas, Hezbollah and Assad.”

Fight over budget escalates

Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay of Blue and White on Saturday accused the Likud party of refusing to put together a budget for next year, the lack of which would necessitate the breakup of the government and new elections. Under a coalition deal between Likud and Blue and White, Netanyahu can remain prime minister in an interim government only if it falls due to failure to pass a budget, a move that the premier has been accused of engineering.

Izhar Shay at the Knesset, on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Likud announced this week… that it will not prepare a [2021] budget in order to break up the government. The cat’s out of the bag. Likud plans to abuse nine million citizens, many of them their voters, for a cynical political stunt. We won’t allow it,” Shay told Channel 12’s Meet the Press.

However, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz from the Likud party on Sunday claimed that it was Blue and White that was not holding up its side of the deal.

“I am in favor of keeping agreements, but they clearly could have done more to meet the spirit of it,” he told Army Radio.

The dissolution of the Knesset was only narrowly avoided in August, when legislation delaying the passage of the state budget until late December was passed at the last minute. If the Knesset fails to pass a budget by the new date, the country would enter new elections — the fourth national vote in some two years.

The parties have been fighting for months about the state budget, with the prime minister insisting on not passing a 2021 budget this year — in contravention of coalition agreements.

Netanyahu says his about-face is a result of the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus pandemic, while Gantz suspects it is part of a plot to deny him the premiership next year as demanded by a rotation agreement.

The power-sharing deal between the parties stipulates that Gantz will become prime minister in November 2021. It also says that if any party breaks up the coalition to call an election, the other party automatically takes the premiership in the lead-up to a fresh national vote. However, there is a single exception to this rule, that being the state budget: Failure to pass the state budget by the legal deadline will automatically lead to elections, with the prime minister keeping his post. This is seen as a loophole allowing Netanyahu an “exit window” to elections without losing his seat.

Netanyahu currently has two such windows: The passage of the long-delayed 2020 budget by December 23, and the 2021 budget by March of next year. Missing either of the deadlines will trigger automatic elections.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on August 24, 2020. (Knesset Spokesperson’s Office)

Blue and White wants the 2020-2021 budget passed by December, to prevent Netanyahu from having the option of heading to elections in March. On its side is the coalition agreement, which stipulated that a two-year budget would be passed this year.

Polls have shown Blue and White sinking to 8-10 seats if elections were held now. Likud has also seen its prospects wither, with a poll from the channel last week showing it dropping to 26 seats, just three more than the right-wing nationalist Yamina party.

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