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Knesset disperses after midnight deadline for budget expires

Israel calls 4th election in 2 years as Netanyahu-Gantz coalition collapses

New vote set for March 23 after ‘unity’ government crumbles in just 7 months; Netanyahu promises huge win, but polls suggest tough race, with main threat from parties to his right

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

  • A worker prepares ballot boxes March 25, 2019 at the Central Elections Committee warehouse in Shoham, before they are shipped to polling stations for the April 9 Israeli election. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
    A worker prepares ballot boxes March 25, 2019 at the Central Elections Committee warehouse in Shoham, before they are shipped to polling stations for the April 9 Israeli election. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
  • Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) is seen with his back to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the Knesset approves a preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve parliament, December 2, 2020 (Danny Shem-Tov / Knesset spokesperson's office)
    Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) is seen with his back to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the Knesset approves a preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve parliament, December 2, 2020 (Danny Shem-Tov / Knesset spokesperson's office)
  • Then-Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar poses for a picture at his office at the Knesset on November 27, 2019. Outgoing Housing Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who has joined Sa'ar's New Hope party, speaks at a ceremony marking her replacement in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Yonatan Sindel, Olivier Fitoussi Flash90)
    Then-Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar poses for a picture at his office at the Knesset on November 27, 2019. Outgoing Housing Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who has joined Sa'ar's New Hope party, speaks at a ceremony marking her replacement in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Yonatan Sindel, Olivier Fitoussi Flash90)
  • Illustrative: The Knesset, Israel's parliament building in Jerusalem. (Orel Cohen/Flash90)
    Illustrative: The Knesset, Israel's parliament building in Jerusalem. (Orel Cohen/Flash90)
  • Then-MKs Gideon Sa'ar, right, and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
    Then-MKs Gideon Sa'ar, right, and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020, after the new government was sworn in. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020, after the new government was sworn in. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
  • Blue and White MK Miki Haimovich votes in the Knesset against a bill that might have staved off elections, December 21, 2020 (Knesset channel screenshot)
    Blue and White MK Miki Haimovich votes in the Knesset against a bill that might have staved off elections, December 21, 2020 (Knesset channel screenshot)

The 23rd Knesset officially dispersed as the clock struck midnight on Tuesday night and the deadline to approve a 2020 budget expired, sending Israelis to the polls for the fourth time in less than two years. Elections were automatically called for 90 days from now, namely March 23, 2021, though that date could yet be changed by vote.

The failure to pass a budget came just seven months after the swearing-in of the “unity government” between Likud and Blue and White. The two parties, which had fought each other bitterly in three indecisive elections, agreed to form a power-sharing government with a rotating premiership between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in May.

But despite pledges to put aside their differences in order to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the political turmoil followed them into government, with both leaders soon claiming the other was breaking their coalition agreements.

Unlike the previous three elections, when Netanyahu’s chief rival was Gantz and his centrist Blue and White alliance, the prime minister’s main challengers this time are set to come from his own right wing of the political spectrum. A former Likud minister, Gideon Sa’ar, has set up a new party, New Hope, dedicated to ousting Netanyahu, and the right-wing/Orthodox Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett is also aiming to try to supplant him. Both Sa’ar and Bennett are seen as more hawkish than Netanyahu on issues relating to the Palestinians and the settlements.

MK Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of Likud, sign their unity government agreement on April 20, 2020. (GPO)

Netanyahu, 71, has held power uninterrupted since 2009, and also served a term as prime minister from 1996-1999, making him Israel’s longest-serving leader. He remains in office as head of the transitional government until the elections are held and a new coalition is formed.

On Tuesday night, hours before the Knesset’s dissolution, hailing his own achievements on the coronavirus pandemic and in forging a stream of four new peace deals in the past four months (with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco), Netanyahu insisted he did everything to prevent fresh elections but promised his party would have “a huge win.”

“I didn’t want elections. Likud didn’t want elections. We voted again and again against elections,” he asserted. “Benny Gantz walked back his agreements with us.”

The prime minister, who is on trial on corruption charges, said Gantz “insisted on letting [Justice Minister Avi] Nissenkorn continue the dictatorship of leftist officials” in the justice system.

Gantz reportedly walked back an agreement to curb Nissenkorn’s powers after realizing his party would not back the move.

“Most Israelis recognize our leadership and huge achievements,” Netanyahu said, citing the success in securing vaccines for Israel, the normalization deals with Arab countries, and a strong economy.

He claimed that “the choice in these elections [is] clear: Either a government dependent on [opposition leader Yair] Lapid and the left, or a true right-wing government.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blue and White responded to the accusations by placing the blame for the collapse of the coalition on Netanyahu. “A man accused of criminality, with three indictments, is dragging the country to four election campaigns.”

“If there were not a trial, there would be a budget and there would not be elections,” the party said in a statement.

After an impressive rise from political outsider to alternate prime minister in a year and a half, Gantz’s future in Israeli politics now looks bleak, with polls putting his Blue and White party at just five or six seats, barely above the electoral threshold; it won 33 seats in the March 2020 election, and 61 of the 120 MKs recommended him for prime minister — though they came from across the political spectrum and Gantz was unable to forge a coalition.

Instead, the Blue and White party head broke off his alliance with Lapid’s Yesh Atid to join Netanyahu’s government, despite repeated pledges during his election campaigns that he would not join a coalition with the Likud leader so long as Netanyahu was facing corruption charges. The Labor party, which led Israel for its first quarter-century, followed Gantz into the Likud-headed coalition. Polls indicate Labor will not win any seats in the next election.

Gideon Sa’ar (R) and Naftali Bennett seen during an assembly session in the plenum hall at the Knesset on February 24, 2014 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s future as prime minister may also be in jeopardy, with a number of new challenges facing him in these elections.

A pair of television polls aired Tuesday evening put Netanyahu’s guaranteed bloc — Likud and the two ultra-Orthodox parties — well short of a majority, with one of the surveys also showing former Likud minister Sa’ar nipping at the long-time premier’s heels in terms of who is better suited for the top post.

In both the Channel 12 and Kan polls, Netanyahu’s Likud party was forecast to be the largest faction with 29 and 28 seats respectively, down from 36 in the current Knesset.

But following Likud was Sa’ar’s New Hope party, which Kan said would get 20 seats, two more than in the Channel 12 poll. Sa’ar formed New Hope last week after announcing he was leaving Likud to challenge Netanyahu. He has since been joined by former Likud MKs Yifat Shasha-Biton and Michal Shir, and Derech Eretz faction MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser.

Gideon Sa’ar visits Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, on December 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The third-largest party would be Opposition Leader Lapid’s Yesh Atid-Telem with 16 seats, according to Channel 12, though Kan predicted it would be the national-religious Yamina faction 15 seats. Yesh Atid received 13 seats in the Kan survey, while Channel 12 gave 13 seats to Yamina.

If Yamina, which was left out of the unity government Likud formed with Blue and White in May, was to rejoin Netanyahu’s bloc, both polls said the prime minister’s alliance would together have 58 seats, still short of the majority needed to form a coalition in the 120-seat Knesset.

Though Netanyahu lacked a clear path to forming a government, it was unclear from the survey results if an alternative majority could be put together, with the parties opposing the Likud leader divided ideologically and over the question of who should be premier. New Hope, Yamina, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White would win 60 seats between them, according to the Kan poll, and 59 according to Channel 12.

Efforts to avoid or at least stave off these fresh elections were doomed overnight Monday-Tuesday, when the Knesset narrowly rejected a bill that would have deferred Tuesday’s midnight deadline for passing the state budget.

Netanyahu took part in the vote, casting his ballot in favor of the bill and apparently believing that it would win a majority. But three Blue and White MKs defied party discipline and voted against it, as did Likud MK Shir — who burst into the Knesset plenum at the last minute, having earlier indicated that she was ill. Shir later resigned to join former Sa’ar’s New Hope party.

The final result of the vote was 49 against, 47 in favor, as it became clear that lawmakers from both Likud and Blue and White had tricked Netanyahu into believing he had the votes for the legislation to pass.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in the Knesset, December 21, 2020 (Knesset channel screenshot)

Blue and White MKs Asaf Zamir, Miki Haimovich and Ram Shefa were among those who voted against the bill, while other party members stayed away. While Likud’s Shir voted against, Likud MK Sharren Haskel was absent; the other Likud MKs backed the bill. (Haskel is also widely expected to join Sa’ar’s party.) Labor’s ministers Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli were absent, while Labor’s third MK, Meirav Michaeli, opposed it.

Blue and White MK Miki Haimovich votes in the Knesset against a bill that might have staved off elections, December 21, 2020 (Knesset channel screenshot)

Had the bill passed, it would have delayed the deadline to pass 2020’s budget from December 23 to December 31. The deadline for approving a budget covering 2021 would have been January 5.

Under the power-sharing deal between Likud and Blue and White that underpinned their coalition, a failure to pass a budget was the lone loophole that enabled Netanyahu to avoid having to give up the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. Likud had been holding up the budget for months in an effort to renegotiate a more favorable coalition agreement. Gantz in August had agreed to extend the deadline for passing the state budget until December 23.

Likud and Blue and White on Monday blamed each other for the failure to reach an agreement and prevent new elections, which are expected to cost some NIS 2.5 billion ($775 million).

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) is seen with his back to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the Knesset approves a preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve parliament, December 2, 2020 (Danny Shem-Tov / Knesset spokesperson’s office)

Gantz, speaking to his Blue and White MKs, said he had laid out five demands to Netanyahu: passing the 2020 and 2021 budgets; approving all senior appointments that have been held up; closing all loopholes that would allow Netanyahu to avoid handing over power to Gantz as part of their rotation agreement; keeping Avi Nissenkorn as justice minister; and approving the Knesset rules of procedure. He said he expected Netanyahu to refuse them.

But Blue and White and Likud sources said that Gantz, in his negotiations with Netanyahu in recent days, had been willing to curb the powers of Blue and White’s Justice Minister Nissenkorn, and to accept Netanyahu’s demands that the selection of a new state prosecutor be reconsidered, even though Amit Aisman has already been nominated, and that the arrangements by which Israel’s Supreme Court justices are chosen would be amended. These changes, which would have allowed Netanyahu a fresh say in the hierarchies that are currently prosecuting and trying him on corruption charges, were rejected by many of Gantz’s Blue and White colleagues, however, notably including Nissenkorn, and thus Gantz backed away from them, the sources said.

Haim Ramon, a former MK who had been negotiating on Gantz’s behalf, said the two sides had reached an agreement late last week, but that Netanyahu then demanded that the date for him to hand over the prime ministership to Gantz be delayed from November 2021 to May 2022. That marked the collapse of the efforts to reach a compromise and stave off elections, Ramon told Army Radio.

Netanyahu on Monday evening claimed that Gantz had reneged on the terms because of “internal pressure” in Blue and White and that Nissenkorn and “the left” were trying to “trample our democracy.”

Gantz retorted that “dozens of rumors and outright falsehoods” had been spread in recent days, claiming that “we compromised, we agreed, we sold out democracy.” These were simply “lies and inventions,” he said.

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