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Gantz sharpens election ultimatum; Katz: We reject Blue and White’s ‘blackmail’

Amid deepening rift within government, Blue and White leader says unequivocally: ‘If there is no budget, we’ll go to elections’

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, left, with Likud party member and Foreign Minister Israel Katz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem as President Reuven Rivlin hosts over 40 world leaders as part of the World Holocaust Forum, on January 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, left, with Likud party member and Foreign Minister Israel Katz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem as President Reuven Rivlin hosts over 40 world leaders as part of the World Holocaust Forum, on January 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Burgeoning tensions within the ruling coalition flared Monday as Blue and White’s leadership said that new elections would be held if a state budget for 2020-2021 was not passed by the end of November, and Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud slammed the centrist party for “attempts at blackmail.”

After days of threatening action if the government fails to pass a budget according to the coalition agreement, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz sharpened his ultimatum, saying unequivocally, “If there is no budget, we’ll go to elections.”

Speaking at a Blue and White faction meeting in the Knesset, Gantz said, “I am not prepared to be hostage to anyone’s political situation.

“The priority is the State of Israel’s and not mine. This is what should be on the other side as well — not Netanyahu’s priorities, but Israel’s.”

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

Israel has limped through 2020 without a state budget, even though the coalition agreement signed by Blue and White and Likud in April provided for a two-year 2020-21 budget to be passed in the summer.

While the initial budget deadline had been in August, with a failure to pass the 2020-2021 budget by then requiring the Knesset to dissolve, Likud and Blue and White agreed to a last-minute compromise that gave the parties 100 more days. That deadline expires on December 23.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics assert he is bent on preventing Gantz from becoming prime minister in November 2021, as agreed upon in their coalition deal.

One of the few loopholes in that agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz that would prevent the Blue and White chairman from replacing Netanyahu after a year and a half would the parties’ failure to pass a budget, which would automatically spark early elections.

Gantz, who has gone head-to-head with Netanyahu in recent months over the budget, said the issue was a “test of seriousness.”

“We did not come here to play,” Gantz said in reference to his surprise decision in April to join a Netanyahu-led coalition, weeks into Israel’s first COVID-19 lockdown. The decision followed three rounds of national elections in which no clear winner emerged.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi talks to the media at a news conference in front of the Liebermann Villa at the Wannsee Lake in Berlin, Germany, August 27, 2020. (Michele Tantussi/Pool Photo via AP)

Shortly before Monday’s faction meeting, Blue and White’s No. 2, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, said in an interview that the deadlock proved that the government was not functioning and that new elections were needed.

“The government is full of quarrelling and rivalry… it’s not working. Enough already, it’s over,” Ashkenazi told the Ynet news site. “If there is no change by the end of the month, we will go to the polls.”

Responding to both Gantz’s and Ashkenazi’s comments, Finance Minister Yisrael Katz said that it was Blue and White playing politics rather than Netanyahu or Likud.

“All blackmail attempts by Blue and White and the attempts to link budgets to politics are unacceptable to me. I am personally in favor of stability and the existence of the government, but not in this way,” Katz flared.

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

“I reject their ultimatum outright and I say, do you work for the country or for your political considerations? Do you want elections? Then I will make sure there are elections. We are not afraid… we will beat them again,” he threatened, before adding, “But it is not in the interest of the state to hold elections. They should straighten up and act for the sake of the citizens of the State of Israel.”

Blue and White has already reportedly warned that should the dysfunction in the coalition continue and a state budget for 2021 fail to advance in the Knesset by the end of November, it will “act as an opposition” within the government.

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