Coalition whip predicts government heading for ‘divorce’

MK Miki Zohar describes a ‘gaping abyss’ between his Likud party and Blue and White, says situation at a critical point and ‘decisions must be made’ on future together

Likud MK Miki Zohar speaks in the Knesset, Jerusalem on February 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MK Miki Zohar speaks in the Knesset, Jerusalem on February 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government is unable to function well and is going to fall apart, coalition whip MK Miki Zohar said Sunday, as the two main coalition parties remained sharply divided over a number of issues.

Zohar, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, told the Kan public broadcaster, “There is a gaping abyss between us and Blue and White on many topics on an ideological level.”

The unity government, formed after three successive elections proved inconclusive and finally sworn in on May 17, has been beset since by wrangling and blocking maneuvers between the right-wing Likud and centrist Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz.

“We aren’t really managing to function as a good coalition,” Zohar said.

“It is a like a couple that wants to divorce and that at any moment” will begin proceedings to end the marriage, he said. “That is the feeling at the moment: that it doesn’t matter what we do, it is going to end between us and Blue and White.”

“Since at the moment there is no stability in the coalition, the deterioration will only continue,” he assessed, though he did not rule out the possibility the situation could stabilize, enabling the government to continue to function for many months.

Zohar said that over the past month he has felt the situation deteriorating and that on Sunday, it reached “the worst point since the government was set up.”

“We are at a critical juncture where we need to decide where we are heading,” Zohar said. “If the decision taken by Gantz and Netanyahu is that we aren’t continuing to have a government — we’ll need to try to establish an alternative government or go to elections.”

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)

Among other disagreements, the sides are currently at loggerheads over whether to pass a one-year budget, as Netanyahu insists, or a two-year budget pushed by Blue and White.

Amid deep distrust between the two parties, Gantz has vowed not to back down from his demand for a two-year budget, as stipulated by the coalition agreement, while Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud has said he would move to present a proposal for 2020 only.

In is seeking to renege on his coalition deal with Gantz and pass only a budget for the remainder of the current year, Netanyahu is citing the uncertainty created by the coronavirus crisis.

Netyanyahu is widely believed to be doubling down on the single-year option as a way of leaving himself the option of dissolving the government next year by failing to pass a 2021 budget — the only option that, according to his complex and convoluted deal with Gantz, will allow him to send the country to a new election without Gantz automatically becoming prime minister in the interim.

The current cliff edge is August 25. Failure to pass a budget by then will trigger automatic elections in November.

The two sides could also be heading for another dispute over a controversial opposition bill that would allow the Knesset to overrule the High Court. Zohar said Saturday he would seek Netanyahu’s backing for the legislation by the right-wing opposition Yamina party that will be proposed this week. Blue and White swiftly responded that it would oppose the bill and called on Likud to do the same.

Thousands of protesters chant slogans and hold signs during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near his official residence in Jerusalem, August 1, 2020. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Netanyahu and Gantz also clashed during Sunday’s cabinet meeting over country-wide anti-government demonstrations by those calling on the prime minister to resign due to his criminal trial. Whereas Netanyahu condemned the rallies as anti-democratic, Gantz insisted that people have the right to protest.

According to a Haaretz report last month, Netanyahu has decided to seek another round of elections because of the Jerusalem District Court’s ruling that witnesses will begin testifying in his criminal trial in January, with hearings to take place three times a week.

The report said Netanyahu fears that petitions to the High Court of Justice will demand he be barred from continuing to serve as prime minister while he is on trial, and that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will back this stance, making it easier for the justices to rule in favor of the petitioners.

Unnamed associates of Netanyahu were quoted as saying that the premier’s main aim in going back to the polls is to regain control over the Justice Ministry and that he would campaign heavily against the judicial system ahead of the elections. The current justice minister, Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, has defended the legal system in the face of unsubstantiated claims by Netanyahu and his allies that he is the victim of an “attempted political coup.”

Netanyahu has dismissed that report and others as “absurd,” but has warned that a return to the polls would indeed result if his coalition does not pass a state budget in the next month.

Two TV surveys published last month showed Netanyahu’s Likud losing ground if elections were held now — not to Gantz, but to right-wing party Yamina, headed by Naftali Bennett, which is currently sitting in the opposition.

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