The United Torah Judaism party appeared to send its strongest signal yet, on Sunday morning, that it will not back a push for new elections by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with party sources telling multiple media outlets that the party could break out of the premier’s bloc and abandon him if a new national vote is called — the fourth round of elections in less than two years.
“The option of finally breaking apart the right-wing bloc is closer than ever,” a UTJ source told the Walla website. “It will leave Likud and Netanyahu alone on the path to elections.”
“Netanyahu will understand that he’s going for such a move without our support,” the source added. “We won’t back up this step, taken without justification.”
UTJ sources spokes anonymously to various media outlets, delivering the same essential message.
A senior party source told the religious Arutz 7 website: “We went to the mat for him again and again and again, over three election campaigns. Whenever he needed us, we were there. More signatures, more bloc discussions, more pointless meetings — everything to ensure he won.
“Now he’s repaying us poorly for our favors by seeking to break everything up due to political considerations.”
The development came amid growing speculation that Israel is headed for a new round of elections due to the escalating political crisis over the passage of the state budget.
By maintaining leadership over a bloc of right-wing and religious parties Netanyahu was able to present a united front of supporting MKs in three rounds of elections, which eventually resulted in the current unity coalition government with the Blue and White party, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
The government 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, however, is insisting on a budget that runs through next year.
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.
MK Ya’akov Margi of the Shas party tweeted Sunday: “Anyone who brings on elections at this time can, by any diagnosis, be hospitalized in the nearest mental health center to his home so he can be brought back to seeing the sad reality.”
Hebrew media reports have speculated that ultra-Orthodox parties oppose elections chiefly because these would further delay the budget, and with it much needed funding of the community’s yeshivas, where tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men spend their days in study.
The crisis between Likud and Blue and White became even more public Sunday with the canceling of the weekly cabinet meeting that was supposed to review the budget. The two parties blamed each other for the cancellation in a series of public recriminations.
Both Shas and UTJ backed Netanyahu for prime minister through the elections over the past year, but last Thursday declared they will not support fresh elections.
“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 (Shas), Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) and MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) said in a joint statement after holding a meeting to discuss the situation.
The ultra-Orthodox lawmakers said it would be “complete madness” to hold new elections as Israel grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic fallout.
Deri, Litzman and Gafni did not specify whether they back a budget for only the rest of the year or one that covers 2021 as well.
The meeting came after the ultra-Orthodox leaders met separately with Netanyahu and Gantz in recent days, in a bid to broker a compromise, without success so far.
If fresh elections 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.
It also cracked the right-wing block, with the Yamina party taking its five MKs into the opposition. Shas has nine Knesset seats and UTJ seven out of the 120 total in the Knesset.
The previous elections, and in particular the third vote, was criticized for wasting billions of shekels that could have been avoided by an agreement between political leaders.
Israel is working to reinvigorate its economy that was brought to a virtual standstill during a lockdown imposed earlier this year due to the coronavirus outbreak. As the restrictions were rolled back, infection rates soared again, but the government has avoided ordering another shutdown thus far.