In key test for government, Knesset votes on state budget, first since 2018

MKs will need to approve or reject hundreds of clauses of economic plan for 2021-2022; process expected to last until Thursday evening at the earliest

Raoul Wootliff is the producer and occasional host of the Times of Israel Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a plenum session to vote on the state budget in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 3, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a plenum session to vote on the state budget in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 3, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

For the first time in over three years, the Knesset began Wednesday evening to vote on the state budget, in a key test that will largely determine whether Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s ideologically disparate eight-party coalition remains in power.

With hundreds of clauses making up the proposed NIS 609 billion ($194 billion) spending plan for 2021, and NIS 573 billion ($183 billion) for 2022, and the opposition having submitted dozens of objections, voting is expected to take until Thursday evening at the earliest.

There will be a total of 780 separate votes, which Bennett predicted would all be won by the coalition.

The coalition can muster at best 61 votes in the 120-seat Knesset, but Bennett said Wednesday he was certain the budget would pass.

In his remarks from the Knesset podium ahead of the voting, Bennett said passing the budget was “the most important moment since the government was formed.”

He said the new budget being introduced comes “after three and a half years of chaos, failed management and paralysis, years in which the country was a tool in a personal game, years of four election campaigns one after another at a dead end.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a plenum session to vote on the state budget in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 3, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The budget is the first that a government has presented for final approval in parliament since 2018, due to a prolonged political deadlock that saw successive governments fall before they could bring a plan to the Knesset.

Failure to pass the proposed budget by a November 14 deadline would bring down this government and trigger fresh elections, which would be Israel’s fifth in three years. The coalition — which holds a slim Knesset majority — is aiming to get the law through by Friday, November 5.

The diverse composition of the government led by Bennett — made up of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties plus an Islamist faction — is, however, complicating the effort to pass a budget, with the opposition of a single lawmaker theoretically able to bring down the wafer-thin coalition.

As the marathon session began, it became clear that the Joint List, a predominantly Arab Israeli party, was voting with the rest of the opposition against the budget, meaning that the coalition would likely need all of its lawmakers present for the entire voting process.

Some individual lawmakers used the tiny margin to their advantage, such as New Right’s Zvi Hauser, who threatened to boycott the plenum unless more money for the National Library was included in the budget. In another incident, Housing Minister Zeev Elkin agreed to postpone and reconsider the planned eviction of a family from public housing in the town of Gan Yavne, after two coalition lawmakers said they would leave the plenum Thursday morning to observe the removal of the family.

Coalition members were said to be wary of fatigued lawmakers accidentally voting the wrong way on parts of the budget. Both opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas party head Aryeh Deri mistakenly voted with the coalition on two separate occasions late Wednesday and early Thursday, though their accidental support did not change the outcome, and as of 2 a.m. Thursday the coalition had yet to lose a vote.

While failure to pass the bill could see the government collapse, passage of the economic plan is expected to stabilize the coalition for the near future at least, amid attempts by the opposition to drive wedges between the coalition’s various ideologies.

Throughout the night, MKs fortified themselves with candies and sweets to stay awake and alert, while aiming bitter accusations across the aisle.

Speaking from the rostrum, Bennett slammed Netanyahu and said there was a relentless “machine” working to delegitimize the coalition, particularly for its inclusion of the Arab party Ra’am.

The government has approved nearly $10 billion in funding over five years to improve socio-economic conditions for Israel’s Arab minority, while hiking some taxes that the ultra-Orthodox argue will affect them the most.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, right, speaks with coalition whip MK Idit Silman during a plenum session to vote on the state budget in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 3, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bennett raged at what he described as Likud’s “hypocrisy,” as it had also courted Ra’am after the election to try to get it to support its own proposed coalition.

“I was there in the closed rooms” where a Netanyahu government-backed by Ra’am was discussed, he said. “That was the only deal [on the table].”

Bennett said “chaos is [Netanyahu’s] business model… without the people being divided, Bibi doesn’t exist. When there’s unity, there’s no Bibi,” using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Speaking from the Knesset podium after Bennett, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said it would be the first budget passed in three and a half years “because of the personal interests of one man, who was willing to sacrifice Israel’s economy” for that interest — another reference to Netanyahu.

Likud MK David Amsalem was escorted out of the plenum after interrupting Liberman several times and calling the coalition members “Bolsheviks.”

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman during a plenum session to vote on the state budget in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 3, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu is widely believed to have torpedoed the most recent budget under his power-sharing government with Benny Gantz, in order to bring down that coalition and avoid passing the premiership on to him as had been agreed between the two as part of their deal.

That fight led directly to the collapse of the last government and the most recent election, the results of which saw Netanyahu ousted from office.

In his own speech, which followed the government representatives, Netanyahu lauded anti-government protesters who gathered in Tel Aviv’s HaBima Square Tuesday, saying they came to “drive out the darkness “of the current government.

Digging into the ruling coalition, Netanyahu denounced the “government of lies” which he asserted would raise the costs of living for Israelis.

The former prime minister said the new budget was filled with new taxes and economic edicts that will hurt the country, referring to new taxes on soft drinks and plastic cutlery, which he claimed would hurt lower-income individuals while benefitting the rich.

“This government must fall,” Netanyahu declared, noting unsourced reports that Palestinian leaders have urged Arab MKs to help the budget pass to ensure Bennett remains prime minister.

“The Palestinians know that from Bennett and Lapid they’ll get whatever they want, and what they want is bad for Israel,” he said.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset ahead of the vote on the state budget, November 3, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Earlier Wednesday, Bennett said an opposition disinformation campaign was attempting to depict the proposed state budget as one that provides money to the Gaza Strip or the enclave’s Hamas rulers.

“I’m stating the obvious here — there is not a penny from the state budget that is going to Gaza or Hamas… It’s a flat-out lie,” he said.

Bennett told members of his right-wing party that Netanyahu was attempting to divide the coalition ahead of the vote on the budget, whose passage the prime minister said would stabilize the coalition.

“He will use all tools at his disposal,” he said.

But, Bennett said, “We don’t need to prove that we’re right wing, we don’t need to prove that we won — we need to pass a budget. That will be winning.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (third from right) and other ministers attend a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 17, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

Knesset proceedings on the budget began Tuesday with speeches by lawmakers, each of whom was granted 30 minutes to address parliament.

The actual vote on the budget will be divided into three: first a vote on the budget for 2021, then a vote on the Arrangements Bill, which contains the details of how the financial plan will be put into practice, and after that the budget for 2022.

The budget bill for 2021 passed its first reading in September by a 59-54 vote, with the 2022 budget passing 59-53.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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