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AnalysisA deal averting elections is actually no closer than it was

Eyeing 2-week reprieve, coalition fiddles with budget as precedents burn

Tentative agreement to delay Knesset’s dissolution involves once again rewriting the Basic Laws, and reveals the state budget was prepared long ago

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Israelis wearing masks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a protest in Tel Aviv on  December 2, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Israelis wearing masks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a protest in Tel Aviv on December 2, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister (better known simply as defense minister) Benny Gantz reached a compromise of sorts on Sunday night, that could potentially stave off early elections.

But the Likud and Blue and White party leaders remain far from any agreement on the substantial matters at the heart of their dispute. Even worse, the interim agreement shines a harsh light on how the government has made politicking hostage to policy.

Netanyahu wants greater control over the appointments of the state attorney, the attorney general and the next few Supreme Court justices. His critics point out that giving him that authority, through the weakening of Blue and White’s Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, would mean he may be appealing a possible future corruption conviction to the judges he will now be appointing.

Benny Gantz wants to be prime minister. Netanyahu already committed to a rotation deal with him, and signed a document in April and a coalition agreement in May vowing to carry it out. From the moment the ink dried, however, the Likud leader been hard at work ensuring he never actually cedes control to Gantz.

Netanyahu’s only out is via an escape clause baked into the coalition agreement signed in May that would allow him to remain premier if new elections are called due to the state budget failing to pass. That’s why as of December 21, 2020, there’s still no state budget for 2020 or 2021.

The agreement tentatively sketched out on Sunday night doesn’t give either man what they want — a deal actually averting early elections is no closer on Monday than it was last week — but it would grant them two more weeks to negotiate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/Flash90)

According to Blue and White, a bill will be proposed Monday that will delay the already delayed deadline for passing a budget or dissolving the Knesset from December 23 — Tuesday night at midnight — to December 31 for the 2020 budget and to January 5 for the 2021 budget.

In a statement Sunday, Blue and White said that the bill delaying the budget deadline won’t delay election day itself (in the event that the 2021 budget isn’t passed), which will be set to March 23, bypassing the current law that legislates 90 days between the Knesset dissolving and a new poll.

Gantz has reason to fear elections. Polls show his party collapsing. It is quite likely that the polls following Sunday night’s news will show it collapsing faster. His continued cooperation with Netanyahu has seemingly turned his voters against him, and more cooperation is unlikely to rescue him from that collapse.

But Netanyahu, too, likely fears elections. His right-wing rivals Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman are together polling at more Knesset seats than the Netanyahu-led Likud, and at least two, Sa’ar and Liberman, have vowed not to sit with the prime minister in the future. Netanyahu suspects Bennett will also refuse to join his government if he sees a chance to finally depose him.

Sa’ar’s entry into the race earlier this month at the head of his own new party, and his strength in the polls since that announcement, appear to have convinced Netanyahu that he’s better off letting Gantz take his seat as a hobbled prime minister with Netanyahu in control of half the government as the “alternate prime minister,” than risk the ballot box and the possibility of Bennett and Sa’ar taking the victory.

Gideon Sa’ar visiting Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem on December 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the new effort to reach an accommodation with Gantz might just be another ruse to delay the election without surrendering the premier’s chair.

The deal keeps Netanyahu’s escape clause intact, while granting him some extra time for the initial excitement around Sa’ar to fade and for mass vaccinations to lower the anger among many on the right at the government’s handling of the pandemic over the past eight months.

Fallout

Blue and White, meanwhile, insists that there are real potential benefits for the entire country from the interim deal, while maintaining that it is aware of the obvious criticism and the widespread belief that Netanyahu is pulling Gantz’s chain.

It has a point. For one thing, if the agreement goes ahead, a state budget for 2020 is set to pass in the coming week, putting in order the chaotic finances of a government that has just spent a year without an approved budget.

Parliament members vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Even more significantly, a state budget for 2021 is set to pass next week, averting the expected financial collapse of some key government agencies in January, according to a warning this week by the government’s accountant general.

Neither will advance if the Knesset dissolves, Blue and White officials noted on Monday.

Indeed, for Netanyahu, a newfound eagerness to pass the state budget may show he wants an election. Netanyahu froze the state budget for over eight months. But if he plans to face the voters any time soon, he’d rather not do it while government ministries are being forced to slice as much as one-quarter of their budget, as the accountant general has predicted will need to happen should no 2021 budget pass.

Leket Israel brings meals directly to elderly and other at-risk recipients amid the COVID pandemic, September 2020. (Courtesy Leket Israel)

These sorts of calculations suggest there is a real prospect that the budget, at least, will be realized, even if no rotation is in the offing and the election remains inevitable.

The passing of the budget bills for 2020 and 2021 is no small thing. The fact that both have been held hostage to politicking throughout the pandemic and economic crisis is an unprecedented departure from the basic rules of Israeli governance. As The Times of Israel and others have documented, key programs, including schools, welfare agencies and nonprofits, have been hurt.

Cooking up the books

But the very question, the suggestion that a long-delayed state budget may finally pass because Netanyahu and Gantz’s political interests momentarily align, highlights the deeper problem with any new agreement between the two men: the subjugation of the government’s most basic duties and fundamental structures to the political whims of the moment.

The 2020 budget can pass without much problem by December 31, as the new deal demands, because it already exists. A first draft was produced by the Finance Ministry back in June. An updated draft is presumably sitting in a drawer in the Finance Ministry Budgets Department ready to be dusted off and submitted to the Knesset.

Not so the 2021 budget. As we’ve been told repeatedly by Finance Minister Israel Katz, of Likud, to justify months of delays in advancing it, next year’s budget is still a work in progress and won’t be ready for serious consideration in the Knesset for a month or two.

How, then, can it be readied for passage into law by January 5?

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The new agreement means one of two things: either Katz has been lying and nothing stood in the way of advancing an already prepared state budget except Netanyahu’s political stratagems, or, worse, Katz has been telling the truth, and the Knesset is set to pass a roughshod, jury-rigged state budget through three readings and all relevant committee writeups in the three parliamentary workdays from January 3, when the 2021 budget will be presented, to January 5.

Pushing it through that quickly has never been done before. It may not be possible. Even if a budget is ready — a damning fact in itself — the Knesset won’t be able to do more than serve as a rubber stamp, surrendering the budget process, its most fundamental power, to the political needs of the prime minister and his alternate.

Constitutional cole slaw

Israel’s Basic Laws have been recognized by High Court of Justice as a quasi-constitution or a constitution-in-creation that sets the ground rules for legislation and governance.

But the unity government established in May by Netanyahu and Gantz has brought the malleability of these laws into stark relief. The agreement required quick amendments to the Basic Laws, writing into them the new post of “alternate prime minister,” the expanded cabinet, the rotation, the “parity” government in which each side’s “prime minister” can only fire ministers who belong to their half of the government. Twice the Knesset has delayed its own dissolution over its failure to pass a budget.

A High Court of Justice hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on May 4, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

All those additions and both delays of the budget deadline were accomplished by fast-tracked changes to the Basic Laws, for the sole purpose of accommodating the needs of the political moment.

If the Basic Laws, the rules of Israel’s democratic game, are changeable at a whim, can even the most generous and liberal of observers still deem them constitutional?

It’s unlikely that this week’s last-minute scramble to avert elections is an honest effort. But it hardly matters. A government that only begins to contemplate passing a state budget when it has literally run out of all other options is not a government likely to survive the next round of political maneuvers, even if, by some unexpected miracle, it manages to weather this one.

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