Knesset gives preliminary approval for election-averting bill to delay budget

By 56-41 votes, MKs give initial support to legislation that would allow government more time to resolve impasse on passing state financial plan

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Knesset passed in its preliminary reading Wednesday a bill to grant the government more time to pass the national budget, helping avert a fourth round of elections by pushing off the approaching deadline.

The bill, proposed Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser, passed 56-41, but its fate in three future votes that are required for it to become law remains mired in the very same coalition disputes and wrangling that have prevented the budget from being passed to date.

A breakdown of the votes was not immediately available, but the Likud, Blue and White, and Shas parties backed the bill. Meanwhile some of United Torah Judaism’s MKs voted against it after the party allowed them to vote freely. The party’s leaders are concerned about the delay’s implications for funds to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. Financing for the yeshivas, where a significant portion of the ultra-Orthodox community’s men spend their days in study, has been held up along with the budget.

The proposed bill gives the government an additional 100 days to approve the budget beyond the current August 25 deadline. If a budget isn’t approved by the deadline, the government will automatically fall and elections will be called.

Presenting bill to the plenum, Hauser said that when the coalition government was set up at the end of May “we all committed to put the disputes between us aside. We committed to the citizens of Israel to work together against the virus, to face a challenge that Israel has never faced before. It seems that today, in the month of August, we understand the enormity of the challenge.”

He said another round of elections would be “unbearable, insanity.”

Hauser’s Derech Eretz faction entered the Knesset as part of an alliance with Blue and White but then split away after the elections.

Screen capture from video of Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser during a Knesset vote on a bill to push off a deadline for passing the national budget, August 12, 2020. (Knesset channel)

Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen of the Shas party welcomed the bill.

“We are surrounded by people who without a drop of responsibility want to see the situation in Israel deteriorate,” Cohen said. “The citizens are crying out under the assault from the coronavirus and they want solutions.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the Likud party, and his unity government partner Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the Blue and White leader, have been locked in a bitter standoff over the budget. The two agreed to pass a two-year budget covering 2020 and 2021 as part of the coalition deal between their parties that was signed in May, but the premier is now demanding a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, given the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Gantz, who also has the title of alternate prime minister, is insisting on a budget that runs through next year, citing previous agreements and insisting it would help stabilize a teetering economy. He is concerned that Netanyahu plans to use next year’s budget negotiations as an excuse to break up the government to avoid a transfer of power in November 2021, under their premiership rotation agreement.

The Knesset plenum on July 22, 2020. (Screenshot: Knesset Channel)

Likud said Monday that it would back the bill to push off the August deadline. Netanyahu’s party, however, only pledged to support the proposed legislation in its preliminary and first readings, not the second and third readings it must clear to become law, prompting speculation that the move was a ploy.

On Tuesday Channel 12 news reported that Netanyahu was demanding that Gantz agree to several changes to the coalition deal on matters unrelated to the budget as a condition for keeping the government intact.

According to the report, Netanyahu is demanding that the accord be altered so elections are automatically called should the High Court of Justice disqualify him from serving as alternate prime minister after he hands over the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. The current deal only gives Netanyahu protection for the first six months of the government’s existence.

Netanyahu is also reportedly demanding that the agreement to form a professional committee for appointing senior legal officials — such as the state attorney and the chief of police — be canceled, with that power returning to politicians.

The report said that was a demand that Blue and White would find “very hard” to accept, as it was one of its main achievements in the coalition deal. In entering Netanyahu’s government, Blue and White argued the move would enable it to protect the independence of democratic institutions and law enforcement.

Wednesday will also see the Knesset vote on an opposition proposal that would bar an MK under indictment from forming a government, which could block Netanyahu from again assembling a coalition due to his indictment on corruption charges.

Blue and White briefly considered backing the bill as relations with Likud deteriorated in recent days, but said Tuesday that its members would walk out of the vote.

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