Early election speculation grows as no agenda published for cabinet meeting

In rarity, not a single item up for discussion in Sunday gathering as Likud rejects Blue and White’s offers, amid budget standoff that will trigger vote if not solved by August 25

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

Speculation was rife Friday that Israel could be headed to new elections, the fourth since April 2019, as no progress was made in a crucial standoff between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz over the state budget, and not a single item was put on the government’s agenda for Sunday’s cabinet meeting, according to Hebrew-language media.

The Knesset has until August 25 to approve a budget or it will automatically dissolve. Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to pass a budget through 2021 as part of the coalition deal between their parties, but the premier is now calling for a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, citing the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Gantz on the other hand is insisting on a budget that runs through next year.

The agenda for the weekly cabinet meeting — held Sundays — is normally published on Thursdays, though it can be published on Friday and some items can even be added on Saturday morning in exceptional cases, as happened several weeks ago.

However, not since the current unity government was formed — and probably not for years — has no item been put on the agenda this late in the week, according to the reports.

Several agenda items suggested by either Netanyahu’s Likud party or by Gantz’s Blue and White have been rejected by the other, including a Blue and White proposal to require the approval of both main coalition parties before a matter is discussed in the cabinet, in accordance with the coalition deal. That was rejected by Likud.

Blue and White leaders Yair Lapid (R) and Moshe Ya’alon at a faction meeting at the Knesset on June 24, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid railed into the government over the matter, tweeting: “There is a health crisis, an economic crisis, and the upcoming cabinet meeting has no agenda. They don’t want to discuss anything, decide anything, do anything. Amazing.”

Lapid’s No. 2 in the Yesh Atid-Telem party, Moshe Ya’alon, issued a public appeal to Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi — his former allies — to “do the right thing.”

Ya’alon suggested that Blue and White “leave this corrupt government,” pass a law barring Netanyahu from serving as premier due to his criminal indictment, and support a new government headed by Lapid, “without needing elections.”

Ashkenazi reiterated in a tweet Friday that Blue and White was not willing to compromise on the budget.

“There are two options: Approving a budget for 2021 or going to elections and then approving a budget for 2021,” he said. “Enough with the tricks! We can’t take a million unemployed people on a dangerous adventure of elections.”

Meanwhile, there were growing signs that Netanyahu is gearing up for elections. Channel 12 reported that prominent strategic adviser Moshe Klughaft had joined Netanyahu’s team in addition to his political team.

There were also reports that Netanyahu’s Facebook election chatbot had resumed its operations, but the Netanyahu campaign said they were old messages and the chatbot had never been disabled.

A pair of television polls aired Thursday signaled slumping support for Netanyahu’s Likud party, with his right-wing rival Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party predicted to make a major surge. Blue and White was also predicted to lose some of its current power.

Then-defense minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of right-wing parties, on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With the deadline for passing the budget quickly approaching, the heads of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which are both members of the coalition, huddled Thursday to discuss the impasse.

“We won’t cooperate with any effort to move up elections. The passing of a budget is the order of the day,” Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni said in a joint statement after the meeting.

The Haredi lawmakers said it would be “complete madness” to hold new elections as Israel grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic fallout.

“The very thought of going to elections at this time is complete madness. This is the time to clear aside everything, [and] bring the state budget up for swift approval so we can focus on the challenges of the economy and health system,” they said.

However, Deri, Litzman and Gafni didn’t specify whether they back a budget for only the rest of the year or one that covers 2021 as well.

If fresh election are called, they would be the fourth since April 2019. The previous three rounds of elections ended inconclusively, but Gantz and Netanyahu agreed on a power-sharing deal after the vote in March. The deal split Blue and White, due to the party’s campaign pledge not to join a government led by the premier because of his indictment on graft charges.

While Netanyahu has to hand over the premiership to Gantz if he calls new elections before the Blue and White chief takes over as prime minister in November 2021, the coalition deal made an exception for a failure to pass a budget, leading to speculation the Likud leader was forcing the budget crisis to avoid having to leave office.

According to a Channel 12 news report Tuesday, Netanyahu is offering to funnel hundreds of millions of shekels to yeshivas outside of the budget framework to reduce opposition by Shas and UTJ to breaking up the government and calling elections.

The network said that ultra-Orthodox objections to elections are based on concerns that it would further delay the budget — and with it money for the yeshivas.

Both Shas and UTJ backed Netanyahu for prime minister through the elections over the past year but have threatened to ditch their alliance with the premier if disagreements over the budget lead to elections, the Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday.

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