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Crisis averted but coalition rivals still sniping, arguing

Knesset passes bill extending budget deadline, pushing off election threat

Netanyahu and Gantz back law at last minute; Gantz told media he was done being silent in face of Likud attacks, warned: ‘If we go to elections, blood could spill in the streets’

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen during a vote to stave off a budget deadline and thus avert elections, at the Knesset on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen during a vote to stave off a budget deadline and thus avert elections, at the Knesset on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

The Knesset on Monday night gave final approval to a bill delaying the deadline for the state budget, breaking through a bitter political logjam and giving the government another 120 days to avoid collapse and early elections.

The breakthrough happened after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz both said Monday evening that their parties would vote in favor of the bill, after a day of their respective Likud and Blue and White parties hurling accusations and recriminations at each other.

Before the vote, Gantz had warned that “blood might be spilled in the streets” if elections were triggered, and castigated Netanyahu for failing to act in the national interest. Netanyahu had retorted that he did “not remember” disparaging Gantz in such a way, but would back the compromise anyway.

A vote on the second and third readings of the compromise legislation, submitted by Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser, that pushed the deadline to December 23 was completed at 9:58 p.m., two hours and two minutes before the country would have been plunged into new elections — its fourth in under two years — due to legislation requiring the government to pass a budget by midnight or fall. The bill passed by 67 votes to 37.

The Finance Committee had advanced the compromise measure in an all-night session on Sunday.

Though the crisis was ostensibly about the state budget, the true bones of contention Monday appeared to be the issue of senior law-enforcement appointments and the balance of power in the dysfunctional unity coalition.

Despite earlier Likud demands, the final bill approved by the Knesset plenum Monday night did not include a clause, demanded by the party earlier, to form a panel on senior appointments. Netanyahu has been accused of seeking to engineer the appointment of top legal officials — including a new state prosecutor — who would be willing to be more lenient in the criminal graft trial against him. The prime minister denied any such plan.

According to Channel 12 news, Blue and White said it would only accept such a clause if Likud agreed to also pass long-delayed regulations formalizing the equal balance of power in the cabinet, as agreed upon in the coalition deal between them — which Likud refused to do.

Other issues of dispute between the two parties, including the matter of the panel for senior appointments, are yet to be resolved. They were not included in the budget compromise law that staved off the election, and the sides will continue to discuss them, Hebrew news reports said late Monday.

Though elections were averted, many analysts believe the government is still on life support and will not survive beyond the next deadline. If, come the new December 23 deadline, the coalition still fails to agree on a budget for the final days of 2020, the country will head to new elections in March, with Netanyahu keeping his seat throughout the process. (If, by March 2021, the 2021 budget is not passed, elections would again be automatically triggered.)

A Knesset plenary session on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

The compromise means that Israel will almost certainly limp on toward the end of this year without a state budget, underlining the paralysis wrought by the Likud-Blue and White unity coalition, which has been riven by deep mutual distrust between the sides and near-constant political bickering since its inception in June following three inconclusive elections.

Under the coalition agreement, Netanyahu must hand over the reins of the government to Gantz in November 2021, or earlier if the government collapses — except in the case of the coalition dissolving due to failure to pass a budget through the end of 2021.

Blue and White has accused Netanyahu of deliberately attempting to avoid keeping up his end of the rotation agreement by manufacturing a budget crisis to avoid giving Gantz the premiership.

At a press conference ahead of the vote Monday evening, a fuming Gantz said he was done being silent in the face of Likud’s attacks on him, accused Netanyahu’s party of concerning itself with the prime minister’s political survival, instead of the well-being of Israeli citizens, and warned that he would not allow anyone to erode democracy.

“No personal attacks and no blood libels will bend me,” Gantz said. “For 100 days, I let my political partners in the government know I sought partnership,” he said, in reference to the 100 days since the coalition government was formed, “that my hands were outstretched for cooperation and that my heart was devoted to one issue alone: ensuring the security, health, and livelihood of Israelis. For 100 days, I was silent in the face of personal attacks, of a deluge of of attempts to humiliate and exclude. I was silent in the face of profanities and ridicule by senior Likud officials.

“Those 100 days of silence, acceptance, and restraint are over.”

Gantz said “a terrible storm is raging outside,” in reference to the coronavirus crisis and the economic havoc it has wrought.

“If we go to elections, blood could yet spill in the streets,” he said, referring to deepening political polarization.

Thus, he said, anyone pushing for elections “isn’t threatening me, but rather threatening Israelis. I won’t allow anyone to bring Israel to its knees.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the media at the Knesset on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

The defense minister said he had entered Netanyahu’s government and paid a heavy political price because he wanted to bring to an end the ongoing political crisis that had gripped the nation through three election campaigns in less than a year.

But, he said, “I will never allow anyone to erode democracy. I will not allow anyone to appoint puppets on his behalf to sensitive public positions.

“On my watch, so long as I am defense minister, I will keep Israel secure from without and within. I won’t allow anyone to threaten the rule of law,” he said.

“Netanyahu, if you seek cooperation for the benefit of Israel’s citizens, my hand remains extended,” he says, adding that if the prime minister seeks to weaken law enforcement, he will prevent it.

Netanyahu, in a video message earlier, said he had instructed Likud lawmakers to vote in favor of the budget postponement.

“I will continue to do the right thing, to avoid unnecessary elections,” he said, while accusing Gantz’s party of introducing difficulties that threatened to lead to elections.

Netanyahu had said Sunday night that he would agree to the proposal to delay the deadline. And yet ongoing disagreements plagued the bill throughout Monday.

This led to repeated mudslinging by the two warring coalition parties, with each saying it supported the bill to avert elections and each accusing the other of making demands that threatened to scupper that bill.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a press statement on August 23, 2020. (video screenshot)

At one point, Likud issued a statement that “Blue and White is running away from Hauser’s compromise, which they agreed to, and are dragging the country to elections, with false claims and by creating difficulties at the last minute.”

Among the various grievances listed in the Monday Likud statement, Netanyahu’s party said Blue and White was refusing to create a panel on political appointments with an equal number of lawmakers from both parties.

MK Zvi Hauser at a Knesset committee meeting on May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The party also claimed Blue and White was trying to “define the budget as a two-year budget” rather than a one-year plan, which Netanyahu has sought.

In turn, Blue and White issued its own statement, claiming that Likud was attempting to “hijack” negotiations with unacceptable demands regarding the appointment of the next police chief, state prosecutor and attorney general.

“Netanyahu has only a few hours left to prove that he stands behind his promise to the nation last night to prevent elections in Israel,” Blue and White said. “He has a few hours left to show whether he will keep his promise to the public to maintain the unity government that will address the coronavirus and [Israel’s] security threats, or blow up the talks for his personal and legal considerations.”

Meanwhile on Monday, a grassroots group called Democratic Fortress petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding that the appointment of senior law enforcement officials —  such as police chief and state prosecutor — take place immediately, as initially agreed upon by the parties.

Though it has since devolved into a fight over law-enforcement appointments and political power, the original source of the coalition’s failure to approve a budget was a disagreement over whether the government should pass a budget that includes 2021, as stipulated in the coalition agreement and backed by Gantz, or a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, as Likud has insisted, due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

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