Just five days before a budget deadline that could push Israel back into elections, a showdown between Likud and Blue and White over the passage of a bill that could stave off the collapse of the coalition appeared no closer to resolution Wednesday, as the two parties failed to reach agreement on the matter.
A Knesset committee meeting meant to advance the measure became bogged down by various conflicting demands Wednesday, meaning that lawmakers are unlikely to pass a bill by Monday delaying the budget deadline, the last day they can do so.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has insisted on passing a budget for 2020-21, as the coalition deal between the parties stipulates, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is insisting on one that only covers the rest of 2020, citing the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.
The deadline for passing the budget is August 24 at midnight. If the budget — or the bill to delay the deadline — is not passed by that time, the country automatically goes to elections in what would be the fourth vote in less than two years.
A bill to delay the deadline, proposed by Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser, passed its first reading on Monday. It must pass three readings before it becomes law, and the Knesset Finance Committee must vote to approve it for its second and third readings.
Under the terms of the bill, the deadline would be put off by 100 days until December 3. As the bill requires changing the country’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, it must pass with a majority of 61 out of the 120 lawmakers in the Knesset.
At a Finance Committee discussion Wednesday, coalition whip Miki Zohar, a staunch ally of Netanyahu, presented four conditions for postponing the deadline, including allocating money in the annual budget for ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and for religious Zionist schools and programs, as well as funding several other education programs and enabling a 5 percent flexibility within the budget.
“If these four subjects are included in the law, it can be approved for second and third readings,” he said.
Blue and White MK Eitan Ginzburg rejected the demands, saying the committee wasn’t meant to be discussing “an alternative state budget.”
In the absence of an immediate agreement between the parties, reports said a committee vote on delaying the deadline would not be held Wednesday. That means the committee and Knesset plenum votes are likely to be delayed until the last couple of days before the deadline.
“There are five days left,” lamented Hauser, addressing Likud. “You are crazy. Don’t ruin Israel.”
The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party is reportedly demanding NIS 400 million ($117 million) for yeshivas as a condition for delaying the budget deadline. UTJ has thus far been in favor of swiftly passing a budget rather than a further delay, to enable funds to reach cash-strapped ultra-Orthodox yeshivas which are a key part of community life.
The prime minister — who formed a unity government with Gantz after three rounds of elections failed to yield a clear winner — has been rumored to be seeking another national vote, amid continuous disagreements within the government and to avoid a handover of power in a little over a year, which will see Gantz become prime minister in his stead.
Were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, Netanyahu said Sunday to Army Radio, the coalition might already have collapsed.
The focus of the dispute has been the state budget. According to a Channel 12 report last week, Netanyahu was also demanding that Gantz agree to several changes to the coalition deal on matters unrelated to the budget as a condition for keeping the government intact.
The TV report said Netanyahu wants the accord be altered so elections are automatically called should the High Court of Justice disqualify him from serving as alternate prime minister after he hands over the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. The current deal only gives Netanyahu protection for the first six months of the government’s existence.
He is also reportedly demanding that the agreement to form a professional committee for appointing senior legal officials — such as the state attorney and the chief of police — be canceled, with that power returning to politicians. In entering Netanyahu’s government, Blue and White had argued the move would enable it to protect the independence of democratic institutions and law enforcement.
Meanwhile Wednesday, Zohar predicted that Gantz would not become prime minister as part of a rotation agreement, seemingly warning of the imminent collapse of the governing coalition.
The coalition deal signed in April stipulates that Gantz will take over as prime minister in November 2021. The only scenario that could prevent that without Gantz automatically becoming transitional prime minister is if the government fails to pass a state budget.
“I don’t know if Gantz will be prime minister in November 2021,” Zohar said. “According to Blue and White’s behavior right now, it looks like he won’t.”
Science Minister Izhar Shay (Blue and White) told Radio 103FM on Wednesday that there were several open issues in his party’s talks with Likud, such as the matter of law enforcement appointments, as well as the budget itself.
“We very much hope that the law that will now pass will enable Israel to discuss the budget and get a budget,” he said.