Gantz, Netanyahu clash ahead of December deadline that could trigger elections

Defense minister’s strongly worded letter insisting on passage of 2021 budget draws angry rebuke from Likud, which accuses Blue and White of ‘petty politics’

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on August 24, 2020. (Knesset Spokesperson's Office)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on August 24, 2020. (Knesset Spokesperson's Office)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz sent a strongly worded open letter Thursday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding the passage of a 2021 state budget and accusing the premier of violating the coalition agreement and of harming Israeli citizens in order to avoid having to hand Gantz the premiership.

The letter drew a seething response from Netanyahu and his Likud party, which accused Gamtz’s Blue and White party of being an opposition within the government, in an exchange that highlighted the possibility new elections will be called in the coming months.

No elections are currently set to take place, but speculation is rampant that an early vote will be triggered sometime in the next several months, as bad blood between Netanyahu and Gantz continues to brew in the shadow of a budget deadline at the end of the year that could automatically fell the government.

Gantz demanded in his letter Thursday that the premier immediately instruct the Finance Ministry to begin preparing the 2021 state budget and to allow its approval by December. Likud, in turn, has insisted that the government only pass a budget for 2020, despite the fact that the year will be almost over in December.

“Any action to thwart the approval of the budget means favoring personal considerations over the well-being of the Israeli people,” Gantz said.

He also demanded that long-delayed cabinet regulations solidifying the power-sharing agreements between Likud and Blue and White be ratified, and that progress be made on stalled public appointments, including a new state attorney and police chief.

“There is a huge gap between the unity agreement we signed and where we are,” he charged. “There is an incredible gap between the good faith and commitment expressed back then and the current reality, which is unbearable. The government’s conduct does not allow proper democratic governance.

“Not fulfilling these demands isn’t a blow to me or Blue and White; it is a blow to the citizens of Israel, who will not forgive any leader who puts [the leader’s] own personal and political interests before their well-being,” Gantz concluded.

“You have already violated our agreement; it would be tragic if you also violate the agreement with Israel’s citizens.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the media at the Knesset on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

Reacting to the letter, Likud accused Blue and White of “continuing to deal in petty politics to divert fire from their crumbling party, while the prime minister fights the coronavirus.”

The party claimed it was Blue and White that was holding up senior appointments by “refusing to establish the joint appointments committee with the Likud, as agreed in the coalition deal.”

Netanyahu, the party said, “will continue to do what is right for the country, not for Blue and White’s populism.”

It called on Blue and White to “stop looking for fights and enlist to the joint fight against the coronavirus.”

Netanyahu himself said in an interview with ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama that Likud and Blue and White “agreed and passed a law saying the 2020 budget will be approved in December and that, in parallel, the 2021 budget is being prepared. That is the law they approved and, unfortunately, they are reneging on that.

“They need to stop being an opposition within the coalition. Their endless fights against the government are leading us to elections; it’s time to stop it.”

In fact, the law passed by Likud and Blue and White merely delayed the deadline for passing a state budget from August 25 to December 23. Elections will be called if the budget isn’t passed by the deadline, and many observers believe that will happen.

If a 2020 budget does pass, the 2021 budget must pass by March or elections will be called. That is Netanyahu’s last chance to force elections without eventually having to hand Gantz the premiership as part of the power-sharing agreement they signed.

The parties also traded barbs on Wednesday evening after Blue and White renewed its public “ultimatum” for a state budget to be passed immediately.

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)

Likud called the ultimatum “a shameful attempt by Blue and White to extricate themselves from their collapse in the polls.”

In response, Blue and White said the Likud reaction “draws into question the prime minister’s ability to make sound decisions under the pressures of the current circumstances.”

“Blue and White will continue to insist that a 2021 budget be passed, in consideration of the best interests of the country, and will further protect those interests through every political means at its disposal,” a party statement said.

The exchanges come days after a television opinion poll indicated that Likud was losing ground, mainly to the rival right-wing religious Yamina party led by Naftali Bennett.

If elections were held now, Likud would pick up 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, while Yamina would win 23, the Channel 12 survey found. In March’s elections, Likud won 36 seats, and Yamina just six.

Yamina has been steadily making gains as a protest movement against Netanyahu’s corruption charges has gained steam and as the country has floundered in efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

The Channel 12 survey found that a plurality of respondents, 49 percent, say the government should be dissolved and early elections — which would be the fourth national vote since April 2019 — should be called. Just 30% said the government should continue operating and 21% said they don’t know. Broken down by political leanings, 58% of center-left voters, and 45% of right-wing voters, said elections should be called as soon as possible.

Since the new government was formed it has been riven by squabbling between Likud and Blue and White. The dissolution of the Knesset was only narrowly avoided in August, when legislation delaying the passage of the state budget until late December was passed at the last minute.

If the Knesset fails to pass a budget by the new date, the country would enter new elections — the fourth national vote in two years — without Netanyahu having to hand over the premiership to Gantz, which he is required to do under their power-sharing agreement.

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