High Court orders government to explain failure to pass 2020 budget

If justices were to strike down law that delayed passing of budget, government would automatically fall and new elections would be called

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Illustrative -- Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut (C) arrives for a discussion on a petition against the coronavirus restrictions on demonstrations in Jerusalem, on October 13, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative -- Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut (C) arrives for a discussion on a petition against the coronavirus restrictions on demonstrations in Jerusalem, on October 13, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With just over a month remaining until the end of the year, Israel’s top court instructed the government on Tuesday to explain why it has thus far failed to pass a budget for 2020.

The High Court of Justice gave the government 21 days to explain the legality of an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law, passed by legislators in August, which allowed them to delay the passing of the budget until mid-December.

Legal representatives for both the government and the Knesset must explain why the law “should not be revoked due to an abuse of the constitutive authority of the Knesset,” justices wrote in their order.

The order was given following a hearing on a petition calling on the court to annul the amendment, and thus require the government to pass a budget immediately. The petitioners, who included former MK Stav Shaffir and the Movement for Quality of Government organization, argued that the government was bypassing the Knesset by postponing the budget and thus effectively preventing the necessary parliamentary oversight in determining budget priorities.

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.

According to the coalition deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to serve as prime minister until November 17, 2021, at which point Blue and White leader Gantz will succeed him. However, if the government falls due to failure to pass the budget, Netanyahu retains the premiership until the next election. He has therefore been accused of using the passage of the budget as leverage, while charging that Gantz has been violating the coalition agreement himself.

Netanyahu has demanded a single-year budget, in contravention of the deal, citing the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Blue and White suspects he wants to leave himself a window to bring down the government during 2021 budget talks next year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz issue a statement at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, July 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Tal Shahar, Yediot Ahronoth, Pool)

The initial budget deadline had been in August, with a failure to pass the 2020-2021 budget by then requiring the Knesset to dissolve. But Likud and Blue and White agreed to a last-minute compromise that gave the parties until December 23.

With the High Court giving the government and the Knesset until December 15 to respond, the hearing on the petitions would likely not take place until after the December 23 deadline. That would mean that if the court struck down the law delaying passing the budget, the government would automatically fall due to its failure to pass a budget in time, and new elections would be called.

The court order comes amid signs that the already rickety unity coalition is nearing collapse.

In addition to the failure to reach an agreement on the budget or on a series of senior appointments, including a police chief, attorney general and Justice Ministry director-general, tensions erupted on Sunday after Gantz announced that he had formed a government committee to investigate the so-called submarine affair, which has ensnared several of the premier’s allies, but not Netanyahu himself.

The affair, also known as Case 3000, revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp.

Netanyahu is already on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three other cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing and claims to be a victim of an attempted political coup involving the police, prosecutors, left-wing opposition and the media.

At a Blue and White faction meeting Monday, Gantz reiterated the need for a state budget and denied he feared possible upcoming elections.

“Everyone’s talking about elections. I’d like to say that I think that the State of Israel needs a functioning government, supported by a state budget and a spirit of cooperation,” he said.

“No, I am not afraid of elections,” added Gantz. “I just don’t think that they’re what the country needs at this time, and I will keep doing everything I can for this government. Not by compromising on my principles, not by compromising on what this country’s priorities should be, not by putting my own needs before the needs of this country.”

The current unity government was formed after three inconclusive elections between April 2019 and March 2020 failed to yield a clear winner.

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