Likud, Blue and White talks break down hours before deadline to avert election

Sides trade blame after PM’s party demands budget delay deal include freeze on senior law-enforcement appointments, which Blue and White refuses, as midnight deadline looms

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/Flash90)

Talks between the Likud and Blue and White parties aiming to avert early elections broke down on Monday just hours before the deadline for passing the annual budget was set to expire, leading each side to renew claims that the other was dragging the country back to the ballot box.

The breakdown followed a demand from Likud negotiators that a snap government decision barring the appointment of any senior law-enforcement officials be passed together with the budget deadline extension that the sides were slated to legislate later Monday night, Hebrew media reported.

Blue and White was said to have rebuffed the demand, saying it violated the terms of the parties’ coalition agreement.

Likud responded by issuing a statement lashing out at Blue and White, accusing it of seeking elections.

Without an agreement to delay a budget deadline that expires at midnight, the government will automatically fall, meaning elections will be held for a new Knesset in some 90 days. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would agree to a proposal to delay the deadline by 100 days — since extended to 120 days — seemingly averting the collapse of the government.

But hours before a vote on the bill Monday, the rift between the sides seemed as wide as ever.

Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser, left, speaking during a Knesset Finance Committee meeting, August 17, 2020. (Knesset Channel screenshot)

“Blue and White is running away from [Derech Eretz MK] Hauser’s compromise, which they agreed to, and are dragging the country to elections, with false claims and by creating difficulties at the last minute,” said a Likud party statement.

A vote on the second and third readings of the compromise legislation that would push the deadline to December 22 was set for 9:00 p.m. in the Knesset plenum.  The Finance Committee advanced the measure in an all-night session on Sunday.

Among the various grievances listed in the Monday Likud statement, Netanyahu’s party said Blue and White was refusing to create a panel on political appointments with an equal number of lawmakers from both parties. The party also claimed Blue and White was trying to “define the budget as a two-year budget” rather than a one-year plan, which Netanyahu has sought.

In turn, Blue and White issued its own statement, claiming that Likud was attempting to “hijack” negotiations with unacceptable demands regarding the appointment of the next police chief, state prosecutor and attorney general. Netanyahu has been accused of seeking to appoint top legal officials who would be willing to be more lenient in the criminal graft trial against him.

“Netanyahu has only a few hours left to prove that he stands behind his promise to the nation last night to prevent elections in Israel,” Blue and White said, referring to the premier’s prime time announcement on Sunday that he had agreed to Hauser’s compromise legislation.

“He has a few hours left to show whether he will keep his promise to the public to maintain the unity government that will address the coronavirus and [Israel’s] security threats, or blow up the talks for his personal and legal considerations,” the party added.

Meanwhile on Monday, a grassroots group called Democratic Fortress petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding that the appointment of senior law enforcement officials —  such as police chief and state prosecutor — take place immediately as initially agreed upon by the parties.

The 9:00 p.m. Monday vote will come 24 hours after Netanyahu said he would accept the compromise proposal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a press statement on August 23, 2020. (video screenshot)

“Out of national responsibility I decided to accept the compromise proposal of MK Hauser,” he said in a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

“This proposal enables the immediate flow of funds to citizens and the economy, and it prevents the need for elections,” Netanyahu said.

In response, Blue and White issued a statement saying the proof will be in Netanyahu’s actions, and urging him to “keep your promise, prevent elections and live up to the agreement” — an apparent reference to the coalition deal between the parties.

Channel 12 reported that Blue and White was still not entirely convinced that Netanyahu will indeed ensure that the election crisis is over. Officials told the network that the party will believe it only if and when the final vote delaying the budget is passed sometime before midnight on Monday.

At the heart of the ongoing coalition crisis is whether the government should pass a budget that includes 2021, as stipulated in the coalition agreement and backed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the Blue and White leader, or a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, as Likud has insisted due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Under the coalition agreement, Netanyahu must hand over the reins of the government to Gantz in November 2021, or earlier if the government collapses, except in the case of the coalition dissolving due to failure to pass a budget.

Blue and White has accused Netanyahu of deliberately attempting to avoid keeping up his end of the rotation agreement by manufacturing a budget crisis or leaving a window open for one in the future to avoid giving Gantz the premiership.

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