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Handful of rebel MKs surprise Netanyahu, Gantz with no votes

Knesset rejects bill to delay budget deadline, sending Israel to elections

Lawmakers vote 49 to 47 against legislation that would have given Likud, Blue and White extra time to reach compromise; Knesset set to dissolve on Tuesday at midnight

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

Knesset members shout at each other after a bill that might have staved off elections is defeated, December 21, 2020 (Knesset channel screenshot)
Knesset members shout at each other after a bill that might have staved off elections is defeated, December 21, 2020 (Knesset channel screenshot)

The Knesset overnight Monday-Tuesday narrowly rejected a bill that would have deferred a Tuesday midnight deadline for passing the 2020 state budget, and thus set Israel on an almost certain course to its fourth general election in two years.

Barring a highly improbable rapprochement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Defense Minister Benny Gantz, enabling all three readings of the 2020 budget to pass into law Tuesday, the Knesset will automatically dissolve at midnight on Tuesday, and Israelis will go to the polls again, probably on March 23, 2021.

Lawmakers voting after midnight Monday rejected the bill that would have given the rival coalition parties an eleventh-hour chance to reconcile their stark differences, by a vote of 49 to 47.

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 Michal Shir — who entered the Knesset at the last minute, having earlier indicated that she was unwell.

Lawmakers vote against a bill to delay the budget deadline on December 22, 2020 (Danny Shem Tov/ Knesset Spokesperson)

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

Michal Shir, Likud MK. (Courtesy)

Speaking at the end of the lengthy debate, Netanyahu again sought to put the blame for the new round of elections on Gantz, saying the defense minister had reneged on a deal that would have staved them off.

Netanyahu told the Knesset that he had spent recent hours trying to secure additional vaccines for Israel and that fighting the virus should be lawmakers’ focus, not fresh elections. “At this time we should have been uniting forces to prevent these unnecessary elections. At the last moment Benny Gantz backed out of the agreements we had,” Netanyahu said.

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)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid retorted, “Mr. Prime Minister, who are you kidding? You don’t care about the mutation [of the virus]; you only care about the rotation [of the premiership].”

Haimovich said she had decided “to vote with my conscience” in defiance of Blue and White party discipline, and that Netanyahu “is not worthy of our trust for so much as another day.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, both wearing protective masks due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)

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.

Earlier Monday evening both Likud and Blue and White said that their negotiations had broken down and blamed each other for the failure to reach an agreement.

Blue and White had walked back the agreements it reached with Likud, Netanyahu’s party said in a statement, after Gantz set out his demands just hours after the bill to delay the budget passed a Knesset committee reading ahead of the plenum vote.

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

“Due to an internal fight in Blue and White, Gantz has retracted all the agreements reached in negotiations between Blue and White and Likud,” Likud said. “It’s unfortunate that Gantz has decided to drag the country to unnecessary elections at the height of the coronavirus crisis.”

The accusation came after Gantz, speaking to his Blue and White MKs, said he had laid out five demands to Netanyahu for his party to support the bill to delay the budget in the plenary: 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.

“If they want it, they’ll take it. If they don’t, there will be elections,” Gantz said.

MK Asaf Zamir makes a surprise appearance in the Knesset on December 22, 2020 to vote against a coalition budget bill. (Knesset spokesman/Danny Shem Tov)

“I gave Netanyahu my final offer and he’s supposed to get back to me,” Gantz was quoted telling party colleagues. “I think he’ll say no and the Knesset will be dissolved tomorrow.”

“If I hear tonight that something can be done on this matter, I will update you. If not, the Knesset will turn into a pumpkin tomorrow night,” he reportedly said, referring to the midnight deadline.

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.

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

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.”

“We don’t want elections. That’s why we were willing to vote in the Knesset to avoid it,” Netanyahu said at a press conference with senior White House adviser Jared Kushner. “But if elections are imposed upon us, we will win.”

Gantz later on Monday night claimed 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.

Blue and White MKs Zamir, Haimovich and Shefa had made publicly clear ahead of the Knesset vote that they did not support the bill delaying the budget deadline. All three had previously publicly expressed their unease at their party remaining in partnership with Netanyahu.

Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Avishai Finkelstein)

On Monday afternoon, a fourth Blue and White MK, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, also criticized the bill, saying the “lousy” possibility of new elections would need to be balanced against “the intolerable reality of a dysfunctional government.”

Amid the political chaos, Blue and White has also been battling the spread of COVID-19 among some of its legislators, which also undermined its voting clout.

Blue and White MK Hila Shay Vazan in Jerusalem, November 9, 2020 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Blue and White MK Hila Shay Vazan was diagnosed with the coronavirus, putting her into quarantine, as of Monday morning. As a result, party colleague Eitan Ginzburg was advised to also quarantine because he had met with Shay Vazan last week.

Late Monday afternoon, it was announced that Gantz himself would also be going into quarantine due to contact with Shay Vazan.

Likud MK David Bitan is seriously ill with COVID-19.

Under the power-sharing deal between Likud and Blue and White, a failure to pass a budget is the lone loophole that would enable Netanyahu to avoid having to give up the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. Likud has been holding up the budget for months in an effort to renegotiate a more favorable coalition agreement.

Opinion polls indicate that Blue and White, which won 33 seats in the March 2020 elections, is hovering at some 5 seats — barely above the Knesset threshold. Likud is at some 28 seats, down from the 36 it won in March, having lost some support to a new party set up last week by former Likud minister Sa’ar, New Hope, which is polling at 19-20 seats. Sa’ar’s emergence as a challenger potentially complicates Netanyahu’s path to retaining power, even though the surveys all show a marked rise in support for parties on the Israeli right at the expense of the center-left.

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