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Gantz before meeting with finance minister: ‘It’s either a budget or elections’

With Knesset on brink of dissolution, Blue and White chief says new vote preferable to gov’t paralysis: ‘I’m afraid Netanyahu is more concerned with his trial than his country’

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Israel-Lebanon border on November 17, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Israel-Lebanon border on November 17, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Defense Minister and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz warned Friday that if Likud does not agree within the next few days to pass a two-year state budget as agreed upon in the parties’ coalition agreement, the country will go to elections.

Ahead of a meeting with Finance Minister Israel Katz on Sunday, Gantz said: “I say clearly now, it’s either an immediate budget or elections.” Katz is to present Gantz with a 2020-21 budget proposal on Sunday, Gantz’s office said Thursday, in a last-ditch effort to try and avoid sending Israelis to the ballot box for the fourth time in two years

In a video message published to his Facebook account, Friday Gantz assailed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying that when it had become “clear beyond doubt that Netanyahu has decided not to pass a budget, I decided to support the dissolution of the Knesset.”

While he said elections “are not the right thing for the country… they are far preferable to a paralysis of government” and to politics determining the management “of one of the worst crises of health and economy we have known.”

Gantz and Netanyahu’s coalition has been in a near-constant crisis since it was formed in May.

“Even though I knew who I was getting into government with, I thought he too had limits he wouldn’t pass,” Gantz said. “I’m afraid Netanyahu is more concerned with his trial than his country.”

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

Netanyahu is facing trial in three criminal cases on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has denied any wrongdoing. Much of the coalition tensions has centered on Blue and White’s belief the prime minister is seeking to undermine law enforcement and democratic institutions to improve his legal prospects.

Wednesday saw a proposal to dissolve the Knesset passed in an initial vote, heralding the likely end of the power-sharing coalition. The Knesset’s preliminary approval of the bill set the stage for new elections, though it must still pass more committee and plenary votes.

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 acted 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.

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.”

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) is seen with his back to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the Knesset approves a preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve parliament, December 2, 2020 (Danny Shem-Tov / Knesset spokesperson’s office)

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.”

The Knesset votes on an initial reading of a bill to dissolve the government on December 2, 2020 (Credit: Knesset spokesperson)

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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