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Knesset speaker warns government still far from solving coalition crisis

Yariv Levin says that even with proposed bill delaying budget deadline, coalition cannot continue to function with constant disagreements, flexibility needed from both sides

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with then-tourism minister Yariv Levin during a vote at the assembly hall of the Knesset on February 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with then-tourism minister Yariv Levin during a vote at the assembly hall of the Knesset on February 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin on Monday warned that although a last-minute proposal to push off a deadline for approving the budget could prevent a coalition crisis from triggering elections, the government was still facing significant difficulties.

“We are far from solving the problem,” Levin (Likud) told Army Radio in an interview Monday, noting there is a “long list” of disagreements between coalition partners Likud and Blue and White.

“This is not what we intended when we set up the government. We can’t work like this,” he said of the Blue and White party.

Derech Eretz, a political faction made up of two MKs, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, elected as part of the Blue and White alliance, proposed a bill Sunday that would postpone the deadline for passing a state budget by several months, granting more time for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and partner-rival Blue and White chief Benny Gantz to hammer out an agreement in their ongoing budget dispute. Both Netanyahu and Gantz are said to support the plan.

“The country needs a stable government,” Levin said. “All sides need to show a lot of flexibility in order for it to work. It is possible even if it is not easy, but it demands goodwill. Both sides know that they need to reach an agreement to make things happen.”

Netanyahu and Gantz have been locked in a bitter standoff over the state budget that threatens to topple the government and force new elections. Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to pass a two-year budget covering 2020 and 2021 as part of the coalition deal between their parties signed in May, but the premier is now demanding a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, citing the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Gantz 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. If no budget is passed by August 25, new elections are automatically called.

Levin rejected the notion that Netanyahu is seeking elections.

“Netanyahu clearly said that a supreme effort must be made to prevent elections,” Levin said. “I hope that is how it will be, but it is clear that by way of mutual paralysis and disagreements we will not go far.”

“As a partner in drafting the [coalition] agreement, the way things are being done until now cannot continue — this is not the way to run the country,” Levin said. “I hope that the initiative of the Derech Eretz party to push off elections and the willingness of the prime minister will bring us to… a new path.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press briefing, July 27, 2020. (Gobi Gideon/GPO)

Levin criticized Gantz, who reportedly had shouted at Netanyahu the day before, during a meeting of ministers, who had gathered to discuss the budget.

“When a man raises his voice, it is because he doesn’t have good arguments to make,” Levin said.

Levin also spoke to the Kan public broadcaster, telling the station the bill to move the budget deadline is “just a band-aid” and that the intention was to “advance a process in parallel to try to reach a broad agreement on various controversial matters” dividing the coalition.

He accused Blue and White of “a long list of clear violations” of the coalition agreement, highlighting the failure to establish, within 100 days of the government being formed at the end of May, a system for appointing senior civil servants. He said Blue and White “is systematically preventing any kind of agreement on that matter.”

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Finance Minister Israel Katz (Likud) told Kan on Monday that he believes the proposed bill to extend the budget deadline past August 25 will be passed by the Knesset.

“Pushing off the elections is a good thing — but the budget must be passed now without waiting until November,” he said.

Like Levin, Katz denied that Netanyahu “is looking for an escape route” from the coalition agreement, and accused Blue and White of using its budget demands “as a political tool to reach March 2021 and the rotation in premiership.”

Katz said he does not want another election campaign, which would be Israel’s fourth since April 2019. “At the moment, I want a partner, unity and to attend to the public. As soon as the initiative is accepted and the sword of elections is removed, it will be possible to move on.”

Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay, of the Blue and White party, told Kan that “as long as the other side pulls all kinds of maneuvers and tries any way possible to avoid the agreement I can’t be sure that at the end Gantz will be prime minister.”

He defended his party’s insistence for a two-year budget — as opposed to Likud’s one-year plan. “We are talking about a budget that will take Israel to the end of 2021, all of the senior treasury officials support it. The finance minister and the prime minister need to get used to the fact that we are partners, which is written and defined in law and in the coalition agreement.”

Izhar Shay poses at the Knesset, on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In announcing its proposed bill, Derech Eretz said in a statement Sunday that it had the blessing of Netanyahu as well as Blue and White.

Blue and White welcomed Likud’s “willingness to safeguard Israel’s political stability” during the crisis, and said it “will do everything in its power to prevent terrible elections in the throes of one of the most serious crises the country has ever known.”

Aryeh Deri’s Shas party, a close ally of Netanyahu, also immediately threw its support behind the bill.

While Netanyahu has to hand over the premiership to Gantz if he calls new elections before the Blue and White chief takes over as prime minister in November 2021, the coalition deal made an exception for a failure to pass a budget, leading to speculation the Likud leader was forcing the budget crisis now to avoid having to leave office in 15 months’ time.

Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to create an emergency unity government in May due to the pandemic, after three consecutive rounds of elections — in April 2019, September 2019 and March 2020 — failed to yield a clear winner.

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