Ultra-Orthodox Knesset party leaders on Thursday urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz to swiftly pass a new budget to prevent a fresh round of general elections.
The Knesset has until August 25 to approve a budget or it will automatically dissolve. Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to pass a budget through 2021 as part of the coalition deal between their parties, but the premier is now calling for a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, citing the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Gantz on the other hand is insisting on a budget that runs through next year.
With the deadline quickly approaching, the heads of the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which are both members of the coalition, huddled to discuss the impasse.
“We won’t cooperate with any effort to move up elections. The passing of a budget is the order of the day,” Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni said in a joint statement after the meeting.
The Haredi lawmakers said it would be “complete madness” to hold new elections as Israel grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic fallout.
“The very thought of going to elections at this time in complete madness. This is the time to clear aside everything, [and] bring the state budget up for swift approval so we can focus on the challenges of the economy and health system,” they said.
Deri, Litzman and Gafni didn’t specify however whether they back a budget for only the rest of the year or one that covers 2021 as well.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) August 6, 2020
The meeting came after the ultra-Orthodox leaders met separately with Netanyahu and Gantz in recent days in a bid to broker a compromise. Shas and UTJ officials said “the two are holding steadfast to their positions,” according to the Walla news site.
“Israeli citizens won’t forgive whoever drags the country to elections during a medical and economic emergency,” Gantz’s Blue and White party tweeted in response to the joint statement. “Deri, Litzman and Ganfi are right: We must pass a budget for a year, as all Israeli economists recommend, to strengthen the citizens, the economy and Israeli society.”
Blue and White has argued that there is no point in passing a budget that will only cover the few months remaining until the end of 2020.
Netanyahu was later asked about the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers’ call to reach an agreement with Gantz and reiterated his support for a short-term budget.
“The ultra-Orthodox parties said [we] don’t need to go to elections and we need to pass a budget. I think we needed to pass a budget yesterday,” he told reporters while touring Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.
President Reuven Rivlin also appeared to comment on the budget logjam Thursday while visiting a school in Jerusalem for at-risk youth that is facing a funding shortfall.
“I call on the government – even in these difficult times, do not leave behind those who need to be helped forward,” his office quoted him saying in a statement.
If fresh election are called, they would be the fourth since April 2019. The previous three rounds of elections ended inconclusively, but Gantz and Netanyahu agreed on a power-sharing deal after the vote in March. The deal split Blue and White, due to the party’s campaign pledge not to join a government led by the premier because of his indictment on graft charges.
While Netanyahu has to hand over the premiership to Gantz if he calls new elections before the Blue and White chief takes over as prime minister in November 2021, the coalition deal made an exception for a failure to pass a budget, leading to speculation the Likud leader was forcing the budget crisis to avoid having to leave office.
According to a Channel 12 news report Tuesday, Netanyahu is offering to funnel hundreds of millions of shekels to yeshivas outside of the budget framework to reduce opposition by Shas and UTJ to breaking up the government and calling elections.
The network said that ultra-Orthodox objections to elections are based on concerns that it would further delay the budget — and with it money for the yeshivas.
Both Shas and UTJ backed Netanyahu for prime minister through the elections over the past year but have threatened to ditch their alliance with the premier if disagreements over the budget lead to elections, the Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday.