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Labor party will back vote for new elections, ending government ‘paralysis’

Economy Minister Peretz says state budget has been taken ‘hostage’ by Netanyahu, Welfare Minister Shmuli declares ‘no point in continuing’ unity coalition

Economy Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Economy Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Labor party on Tuesday said it would back a bill to disband the Knesset and call early elections, amid widespread speculation that Israelis will soon head back to the ballot box for the fourth time in under two years.

With Labor’s backing and that of another small coalition party, Derech Eretz, the fate of the bill now lies in the hands of the Blue and White party, which is reportedly planning to also support the motion.

The motion of no confidence is going up for its preliminary reading Wednesday. It would still need to be approved by a Knesset committee and then pass three more votes to formally dissolve the government.

Labor’s leader, Economy Minister Amir Peretz, held overnight discussions with fellow party member Itzik Shmuli and the two agreed that their coalition faction of three lawmakers would support the opposition-proposed bill.

“It is not possible to continue to have a government in which the most permanent thing is uncertainty,” Peretz tweeted.

Peretz charged that “the state budget has been taken hostage by the prime minister because of personal considerations,” even as the country is gripped by the pandemic, which he described as one of the most serious crises Israel has known.

“Instead of constant paralysis and mutual accusations it is better to disband the Knesset and go to elections now,” he wrote.

Similarly, Welfare Minister Shmuli tweeted that “the prime minister puts personal considerations and external motives at the forefront and pushes everything into the… abyss.”

“It was never a dream government, but we agreed to set it up to address one of the serious crises that have happened in the country,” Shmuli wrote. “There is no point in continuing like this. We will vote in favor tomorrow.”

Recent opinion polls have consistently predicted that the Labor party would fall under the electoral threshold if elections were held.

Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli speaks during a ceremony at the ministry’s headquarters in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

On Monday, Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, leader of the Derech Eretz party, told Army Radio that his coalition faction’s two MKs will also support the measure.

“I can see only one path — going to elections,” Hendel said. “The government is not working well enough.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party is also expected to give initial backing to the bill, TV reports said Monday evening.

Channel 13 news said that Gantz’s chief of staff Maayan Israeli spoke with Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Asher Ohayon, and told him that Blue and White would “vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset on Wednesday.”

That would give the bill a majority backing in the Knesset.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Blue and White have been at loggerheads almost since the start of their power-sharing coalition in May, but ties between the two have hit a nadir in recent weeks as a budget deadline neared.

Gantz’s decision would kill any hopes he had of assuming the premiership, as part of a rotation deal and put a final nail in the parties’ ill-fated coalition after barely half a year.

According to Channel 12 news, talks between Likud and Blue and White to try and solve the impasse have not led anywhere, though Gantz has left open the possibility of Likud offering a compromise to stave off early elections.

The unsourced report said that senior Blue and White members favor dissolving the coalition and that Gantz was likely to follow suit and announce the decision in a press conference Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, the Kan public broadcaster contended that a final decision had not been made and reported that during a Blue and White faction meeting, some party members had pressured Gantz to at least support it in the preliminary vote as a means of pressuring Likud.

Channel 12 said a prerequisite for any compromise with Likud would be legislation forcing Likud to honor the power-sharing coalition agreement, according to which Gantz is supposed to become prime minister in November 2021, and close a current loophole that lets Netanyahu remain premier if the government falls due to failure to pass the state budget.

It said Likud, on the other hand, would not settle for less than ousting Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn from his current position as justice minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a news conference in Jerusalem, November 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)

Gantz earlier Monday ordered his party to prepare proposals for a number of contentious laws that do not have coalition backing, in a move that could further strain the coalition.

The Blue and White announcement said Gantz had instructed the party to put forward three legislative proposals aimed at promoting equal rights: “The Basic Law: Equality,” which Gantz said “aimed to enshrine the right to equality and the prohibition of discrimination”; “the surrogacy law,” which would “evenly expand the circle of those entitled to surrogacy, expand the circle of women who can serve as surrogates, and regulate the possibility of surrogacy outside Israel”; and “The Basic Law: The Declaration of Independence,” which would require judges to “interpret all Israeli legislation, including other Basic Laws, in light of the Declaration of Independence as a constitutional document.”

Bringing the Blue and White proposals to the Knesset without specific agreement from Likud violates a clause in the coalition agreements signed between the two parties.

Kan reported that Blue and White officials were checking whether party members could legally support passing legislation opposed by the government and remain ministers.

Following the announcement, the Likud party said that Netanyahu would give a “special statement” on the possibility of early elections, which TV stations covered live, anticipating political drama. However speaking briefly at the start of his Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu instead merely said that his party would not support efforts to disband the Knesset immediately, and would vote this week “against new elections, and for the unity of the people of Israel.”

Blue and White responded by saying in a statement that “the public is done with buying Netanyahu’s lies. If there were no trial, there would be a budget.”

The comment was a reference to Netanyahu’s corruption trial and the continued delay in approving a new state budget, which many analysts see as a ploy by Netanyahu to remain in power thanks to the loophole that allows him to stay in office if the government collapses due to a budget impasse.

Likud MK Miki Zohar chairs a House Committee meeting on a bill to dissolve the Knesset and hold fresh elections on May 28, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a staunch ally of Netanyahu’s Likud, slammed Blue and White for putting forward the equality bills and said the party and Gantz “have decided to dissolve the government and go to elections” in a move that “signals a severe political distress.”

Shas leader Aryeh Deri earlier this year offered a personal guarantee on primetime TV that Netanyahu would honor the coalition deal and that Gantz would become prime minister. Earlier this month, he appeared to disavow that guarantee.

Likud MK Miki Zohar, the coalition whip, told multiple news outlets Monday evening that Netanyahu intended to honor the power-sharing deal with Gantz, saying the premier is not interested in elections at this time, and putting the blame on Blue and White.

“We aren’t afraid of going to elections,” he told Channel 12.

Under the coalition deal between the Likud party, led by Netanyahu, and Blue and White, the two agreed to pass a budget running through 2021. Netanyahu, however, is now insisting on separate budgets for 2020 and 2021, with a failure to pass a budget allowing him to avoid handing the premiership over to Gantz — as the agreement also requires — and instead go to elections.

If the budget issue is not resolved by late December, early elections would automatically be called anyway, the fourth in two years. Gantz agreed to join Netanyahu in a power-sharing government following three indecisive elections, in a move the Blue and White leader described as necessary to deal with the coronavirus crisis, despite the blow to his own political propsects.

Science Minister Izhar Shay from Blue and White said on Thursday that there was a “good chance” that his party would vote in favor of the motion of no confidence in the government, toppling the coalition and setting the country formally on the path to new elections.

Polls have shown a new round election to be damaging to Blue and White, which would fall to around 10 seats. The surveys have projected Likud as remaining the largest party, with challenges coming from the right-wing Yamina and centrist Yesh Atid.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz has so far refused to say if Blue and White would support the bill. His party has been reportedly weighing putting forward its own bill to disperse the Knesset to avoid handing Yesh Atid credit for the move. Lapid’s bill would likely fail without Blue and White’s support.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked has said that her right-wing religious party would support Lapid’s bill to disband the Knesset, with the government appearing to be teetering on the brink of collapse anyway.

Shaked said last week that her party was now “a leadership alternative” to Likud, and said people were tired of “the failing parties currently running the country.” Yamina leader Naftali Bennett “is able, worthy and needs to be the next prime minister,” she declared.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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