Knesset set to back preliminary motion to dissolve itself, call early elections

Majority all but guaranteed for opposition bill after Blue and White pledges support; poll predicts government not headed by Netanyahu near-impossible in next Knesset

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Israeli activists wear masks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Israel Katz as they protest against the government, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, December 2, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli activists wear masks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Israel Katz as they protest against the government, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, December 2, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Knesset was set Wednesday to vote on — and likely approve — a preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve the parliament and call early elections, the fourth in two years, after Defense Minister Benny Gantz said his Blue and White coalition party would support it and dismantle the partnership with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after some six months.

Meanwhile, an opinion poll predicted a new election would see a comfortable majority for the right, including the opposition Yamina, which has emerged as a potential rival to the premier’s Likud party. However, the survey indicated it was unlikely that a government not headed by Netanyahu would be formed.

The plenum convened at 11 a.m., with the vote to dissolve the Knesset set to take place hours later since it is the last item on the agenda.

Ahead of the dramatic vote there was last-minute scrambling within the predominantly Arab Joint List, whose Islamic religious Ra’am faction eventually decided not to support the bill and sit out the vote amid a warming of relations between its leader, Mansour Abbas, and Netanyahu.

Other Joint List members used their speeches in the plenum to plead for unity within the Arab alliance and argued against the dissolution of the Joint List, which is a potential consequence of Ra’am’s decision. Before the Knesset discussion, many party members posted detailed statements about why the bill must be supported and expressed implicit criticism of Abbas, without mentioning him by name.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid urged lawmakers to support the bill, railed against the government’s handling of the pandemic and accused the political leaders of destroying Israel’s social fabric.

“You don’t have a clue what you’re doing. You took the incredible abilities and resources of the Israeli public and made everything political,” he said. “It’s all political interests and the prime minister’s legal strategies, and tax benefits for Netanyahu and jobs for your friends. You care only about yourselves and in the meantime, Israel isn’t being taken care of. You’re putting our lives in danger. You’re putting our economy in peril, abandoning our parents, setting fire to our children’s future.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid in the Knesset plenum on December 2, 2020. (Knesset spokersperson/Danny Shem-Tov)

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz slammed Gantz for entering the government in the first place, saying that its driving force was Netanyahu’s personal interest to evade corruption charges against him.

“Had you listened to us, Benny Gantz would have been prime minister and Netanyahu would have left [the Prime Minister’s Residence on] Balfour [Street] long ago,” he said, addressing Blue and White. “Some in our camp spat in the face of the voters, reneged on all their promises and crawled into this government of shame and disgrace. Those who viewed themselves as leaders of the camp gave up when the battle began.

“In the coming elections, the public won’t vote for parties with Trojan horses,” Horowitz added.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg echoed that sentiment, disputing Gantz’s statement Tuesday night that Netanyahu did not lie to him personally, but rather to the Israeli people.

Netanyahu lied to you, and you fell for it, she charged. “As the memes say: You had one job! But even this you didn’t manage,” she said, calling for political cooperation between Jews and Arabs in the next election.

The Knesset plenum on December 2, 2020. (Knesset spokersperson/Danny Shem-Tov)

Lapid’s Yesh Atid-Telem party, which put forward the bill, was sure to support it, giving it the backing of 17 MKs. The three members of the left-wing Meretz, the five members of Yamina, the seven members of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, the two members of Derech Eretz and the two Labor ministers have similarly pledged to support the bill. Labor’s opposition MK Merav Michaeli is also certain to back it.

Together with the 11 non-Ra’am Joint List MKs and 13 of Blue and White’s 14 lawmakers (its minister Pnina Tamano-Shata is currently in Ethiopia), that brings the bill’s expected supporters to 61. There are only 56 guaranteed votes against the bill.

However, the government won’t automatically fall if the motion passes. After the preliminary reading, the bill will probably go to the Knesset’s House Committee — controlled by Blue and White — where it is reportedly likely to be held at least until Monday to provide a chance for last-ditch talks with Likud, which reports say are unlikely to yield an agreement.

After a committee approval, the bill would have to be supported by lawmakers in three more readings. If that happens, the Knesset will dissolve and MKs will have to agree on a date for elections, which will happen between March and June 2021.

If the bill isn’t ultimately approved, the government has until December 23 to pass a 2020 budget or the government will fall and elections will automatically be scheduled for March 23, 2021.

The Knesset ahead of a vote on October 15, 2020. (Gideon Sharon/Knesset)

Likud and Blue and White have been at loggerheads almost since the inception of their power-sharing coalition in May, but ties between the two have hit a nadir in recent weeks as the budget deadline nears. Gantz has accused Netanyahu of refusing to pass the 2020 and 2021 state budget in one go — as per the coalition agreement — in an attempt to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister in November 2021, also as per the coalition agreement.

Under that deal, the only scenario in which Gantz won’t become premier (apart from Blue and White causing the fall of the government) is if the government dissolves due to failure to pass the budget by the deadline.

Gantz said Tuesday that he could no longer support the government and that his party would support the bill to call early elections.

Describing Netanyahu as “a serial breaker of promises” in a prime-time televised address, Gantz accused the prime minister of lying to the public when he agreed to form a unity coalition between Likud and Blue and White, an agreement in which Netanyahu promised to hand over the premiership to Gantz in November 2021.

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz announces his party will vote to dissolve the Knesset, December 1, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

“I entered the government with a heavy heart but with a whole heart,” Gantz, who also serves as alternate prime minister, said regarding his May decision to form a coalition with Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu promised unity; he said there wouldn’t be tricks and games. But he doesn’t fulfill his promises and the public ultimately pays,” he said. “Netanyahu didn’t lie to me; he lied to you,” Gantz told Israelis. “He didn’t dupe me; he duped the citizens of Israel.”

Ahead of the vote, coalition whip Miki Zohar (Likud) said Wednesday that he hoped Blue and White would make the “rational” choice, keep the government afloat and pass the budget.

“I tend to believe that a person won’t put an end to his political life and won’t bang his head against the wall,” he told Radio 103FM, apparently referring to Gantz.

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party holds a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the Joint List was said to be putting heavy pressure on Ra’am to support the bill, after reports said the four Ra’am MKs were considering abstaining. Ta’al MK Ahmad Tibi said in a Facebook post: “I won’t forgive myself, and our people won’t forgive us, if we extend the life of the Netanyahu government when we have the option of toppling it.”

An opinion poll published Wednesday predicted a continued lead for the right, including a strong showing for the religious right-wing Yamina, which is in the opposition and has indicated it won’t necessarily go with Netanyahu.

The survey, conducted online on Tuesday by Panels Politics and published by Radio 103FM, showed that if Naftali Bennett’s party does end up going with its former partners Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, they could form a coalition with 67 of the 120 Knesset members.

On the other hand, a government that includes the Yamina, Yesh Atid, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu parties was not possible according to the poll, with those parties combined getting 59 seats, two short of a majority. The left-wing Meretz party could hand that government a majority, but would likely not enter a coalition with Yamina and Yisrael Beytenu.

That means Netanyahu would likely remain prime minister after the election.

The poll gave Likud 29 seats and 23 for Yamina, 18 for Yesh Atid, 12 for the Arab Joint List, 10 for Blue and White, eight each for Yisrael Beytenu and Shas, seven for UTJ and five for Meretz.

The poll indicated that a potential new party headed by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai would not be a political gamechanger and would garner just four seats — taking two from Blue and White and one each from Likud and Yamina.

Asked who was to blame for the country apparently going to another election, 48 percent said Netanyahu, continuing a drop in support for the premier amid the coronavirus pandemic; while 30% blamed Gantz. The rest said they didn’t know.

The poll was conducted online among 523 respondents constituting a representative sample of Israeli adults. The margin of error is 4.4%.

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