Knesset winter session opens under shadow of fresh coalition infighting

Blue and White minister claims nationwide virus lockdown forced by Netanyahu to avoid angering Haredi allies; Likud Knesset speaker slams centrist partner’s ‘populist conduct’

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’s winter sessions formally opened on Monday with a packed agenda — and no end to sniping between coalition parties.

The session opens after days of increasingly acerbic fighting between Likud and Blue and White, with each party accusing the other of failing to adhere to coalition agreements, politicizing the fight against the coronavirus, and dragging the country unnecessarily into early elections — issues that have been consistent themes throughout the unity government’s short life.

Culture Minister Chili Tropper, of Blue and White, charged that the three-week nationwide lockdown now underway was imposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu based on immediate political considerations, accusing him of wreaking damage on the economy for personal gain.

“Too many personal considerations are getting in the way of making decisions,” said Tropper, who is close to Blue and White leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

“The fear of fighting with his political partners” — a reference to the Haredi political parties — drove Netanyahu’s decision against imposing a series of localized lockdowns in high-infection towns instead of a nationwide closure, he charged in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster Monday morning.

Haredi leaders have claimed that the government’s “traffic light” plan to seal off areas with high infection rates while leaving the rest of the economy open unfairly singled out ultra-Orthodox towns — where the virus is spreading fastest, according to tests. The result was a nationwide lockdown, though many experts said the move was justified given Israel’s high infection rate.

Blue and White MK Chili Tropper at the Knesset on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Tropper also slammed Netanyahu for the delays in passing a state budget for 2021 despite the passage of said budget being part of the coalition agreement signed by Netanyahu back in March.

“This isn’t even a political fight, it’s a fight to save lives,” he said. “It makes no sense to pass a [2020] state budget for a single week.” The 2020 budget now must pass by December 23, after the March deadline was extended twice by special legislation.

Science Minister Yizhar Shai, also of Blue and White, said his party was the “responsible adult” in the coalition and charged that Likud’s dithering with the budget bill was “choosing cynical politics at the expense of Israeli citizens.”

Under the coalition deal between Likud and Blue and White, Netanyahu can remain prime minister in an interim government only if the government falls due to failure to pass a budget, a move that the premier has been accused of engineering.

The  Knesset last passed a state budget in March 2018, which was in force till the end of 2019. The lack of a comprehensive budget law in 2020 has left many government ministries struggling with unexpected budget shortfalls and made it difficult to plan ahead. Many organizations, including those that ran the largest programs for at-risk youth in the country, were forced to close for part of the year as government support dried up. Some treasury officials have warned that Israel’s credit rating with international lending agencies could be hurt.

Then-tourism minister Yariv Levin at the Kfar Maccabia Hotel in Ramat Gan, on October 27, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud, meanwhile, blamed Blue and White for the nationwide lockdown, saying the centrist party’s “populist conduct” had rendered the government unable to deal competently with the virus crisis.

“Obviously nobody wants to shutter businesses, but in any country that isn’t managed responsibly and doesn’t close when it must, you end up being forced into longer and more damaging lockdowns,” he said in an Israel Radio interview.

“Unfortunately, that happened to us because of the populist conduct of [Blue and White],” he charged.

He insisted the government was working on a state budget for both 2020 and 2021, but hinted that the latter year’s budget may not be ready in time to prevent early elections by the deadline for its passage in March. “It’s clear that with the enormous uncertainty right now, our ability to commit a year ahead is almost nonexistent.”

The latest bickering follows rumors on Sunday that Blue and White had been making plans for a new government in the current Knesset without Likud.

Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid speaks in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

“Blue and White made a deal with [Yesh Atid chief Yair] Lapid on the formation of a minority government with Balad and the Joint List,” claimed Likud MK Miki Zohar on Sunday.

“It turns out that they once again returned to the option of Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi,” he said, naming two politicians from the majority-Arab party. “Blue and White are no longer coalition partners, but a danger to the nation.”

Blue and White mocked Zohar on Sunday, saying in a statement: “Miki, even in Likud they don’t take you seriously. Keep blabbering on because that’s the only thing you know how to do, and not very well either.”

Since the government was formed it has been riven by squabbling between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White.

Opposition leaders have worked hard to make the coalition’s life more difficult. Yesh Atid chief and opposition leader MK Yair Lapid proposed a no-confidence motion set to come up for a vote Monday, which would bring about the dissolution of the coalition if it wins 61 votes — a highly unlikely scenario.

Minister of Defense Benny Gantz speaks with Likud parliament member Miki Zohar during a vote at the Knesseton August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL vis Flash 90)

“In the end, it is a simple decision. Either they express confidence in the failed Netanyahu or they do not trust him. Everything else is excuses from cowardly politicians. Tomorrow is the test,” tweeted Lapid.

The opposition’s right-wing Yamina party has said it would not back the measure.

Lapid has called on Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, also of Blue and White, to break coalition ranks to vote alongside the opposition, and has asked the Labor party, which joined the ruling coalition despite campaign pledges against doing so, to do the same. Gantz and Ashkenazi are both former partners of Lapid who split up the centrist list to join Netanyahu’s government.

Also Saturday, Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s top rival in the Likud party, announced he would quit his post in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, saying emergency virus regulations had turned the legislature into a rubber stamp for the government.

The dissolution of the Knesset was only narrowly avoided in August, when legislation delaying the passage of the state budget until late December was passed at the last minute. If the Knesset fails to pass a budget by the new date, the country would enter new elections — the fourth national vote in some two years.

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

The parties have been fighting for months about the state budget, with the prime minister insisting on not passing a 2021 budget this year — in contravention of coalition agreements.

Netanyahu says his about-face is a result of the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus pandemic, while Gantz suspects it is part of a plot to deny him the premiership next year as demanded by a rotation agreement.

The power-sharing deal between the parties stipulates that Gantz will become prime minister in November 2021. It also says that if any party breaks up the coalition to call an election, the other party automatically takes the premiership in the lead-up to a fresh national vote. However, there is a single exception to this rule, that being the state budget: Failure to pass the state budget by the legal deadline will automatically lead to elections, with the prime minister keeping his post. This is seen as a loophole allowing Netanyahu an “exit window” to elections without losing his seat.

Netanyahu currently has two such windows: The passage of the long-delayed 2020 budget by December 23, and the 2021 budget by March of next year. Missing either of the deadlines will trigger automatic elections.

Blue and White wants the 2020-2021 budget passed by December, to prevent Netanyahu from having the option of heading to elections in March. On its side is the coalition agreement, which stipulated that a two-year budget would be passed this year.

Polls have shown Blue and White sinking to 8-10 seats if elections were held now. Likud has also seen its prospects wither, with a poll from the channel last week showing it dropping to 26 seats, just three more than the right-wing nationalist Yamina party.

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