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Finance minister to present Gantz with budget plan in bid to stave off elections

Blue and White says Israel Katz to meet with defense minister on Sunday ‘to present a budget for 2020-2021’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, left, with then-foreign minister Israel Katz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on January 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, left, with then-foreign minister Israel Katz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on January 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A day after giving preliminary backing to a bill to dissolve the Knesset and call early elections, Defense Minister and Blue and White chair Benny Gantz said Thursday that he would meet with Finance Minister Israel Katz (Likud) next week in a last-ditch effort to try and avoid sending Israelis to the ballot box for the fourth time in two years.

“Finance Minister Israel Katz has reached out to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, requesting a meeting to present a budget for 2020-2021. The two are expected to meet sometime next Sunday,” Gantz’s spokesperson said.

The announcement came a day after the proposal to dissolve the Knesset was passed in an initial vote, heralding the likely end of the power-sharing coalition Gantz established with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some six months ago. The Knesset’s preliminary approval of the bill set the stage for new elections, though it must still pass more committee and plenary votes.

Both Blue and White and Likud are reportedly using the time until a final vote to seek a compromise to avert elections, though most analysts believe Israel will return to the ballot box sometime between March and June.

Gantz said Tuesday that he could no longer support the government given its failure to pass a budget, calling Netanyahu “a serial breaker of promises.” But he ended his address by offering Netanyahu an opening to avoid new elections, if he immediately acts to pass the 2020-2021 budget as agreed to in the coalition deal.

“I will do all I can so that the country will have a budget and so that I can continue to serve it,” Gantz said.

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz announces he will vote to dissolve the Knesset, December 1, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Katz, tweeting immediately after Gantz’s speech, said that he still planned for a 2020 budget to be passed by the December 23 deadline, criticizing the Blue and White leader for “playing politics.”

If the Knesset dissolution bill isn’t ultimately approved, the government has until December 23 to pass a 2020 budget or the government will fall and elections will automatically be scheduled for March 2021.

Likud and Blue and White have been at loggerheads almost since the inception of their power-sharing coalition in May, but ties between the two hit a nadir in recent weeks as the budget deadline nears. Gantz has accused Netanyahu of refusing to pass the 2020 and 2021 state budgets in one shot — as per the coalition agreement — in an attempt to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister in November 2021 as the deal stipulates.

Under that deal, the only scenario in which Gantz won’t become premier (apart from Blue and White causing the fall of the government) is if the government dissolves due to a failure to pass the budget by the deadline. Blue and White suspects Netanyahu is seeking to split the budgets for 2020 and 2021 in order to leave himself a window to bring down the government over the 2021 budget later next year.

In a press conference at the Knesset after Wednesday’s vote, Netanyahu said, “we don’t need to go to elections. The people of Israel want unity, not elections… Benny Gantz needs to slam on the emergency brake.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on November 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the prime minister didn’t once refer to the budget, and, pressed by a reporter, dodged the issue and again claimed Gantz was undermining the coalition.

Shortly after Netanyahu spoke, Gantz appeared to reject his comments.

“The economic terror attack you’re perpetrating against Israeli citizens while an economic, medical and social crisis is raging shows you’ve lost it,” said Gantz, referring to the impasse and accusing Netanyahu of holding up the budget as leverage, amid the premier’s trial on corruption charges.

“If there was no trial, there would be a budget. If there was no trial, there would be unity,” he said.

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