As Israel appeared to barrel toward a new election amid an escalating crisis over the state budget, senior Likud ministers on Friday anonymously criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leading Israel to what they saw as an unnecessary and detrimental new vote.
Meanwhile a top ally of the premier warned that a new round at the polls was inevitable if Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party did not yield to Netanyahu’s demands for a one-year budget.
“I don’t understand the prime minister’s behavior, not in terms of political benefit or in terms of national benefit,” one unnamed minister told Channel 13 news. “If he drags us to an election we’ll look like [politically volatile] Lebanon. It’ll be an economic disaster.”
The minister also noted that Netanyahu isn’t much likely to be better off after such an election: With Naftali Bennett’s Yamina rising in the polls at the expense of Likud, a new right wing government would necessarily depend on Bennett and his partner Ayelet Shaked — who both share an acrimonious relationship with the premier.
“If he loses it will be a personal tragedy for him, but even if he wins he’ll be dependent on Bennett and Shaked instead of [Foreign Minister Gabi] Ashkenazi and Gantz,” he said.
Another minister, speaking anonymously, wondered: “What achievements will we present to the public? … A third of the faction will be erased in favor of Bennett. We won’t gain anything in an election.”
Earlier Friday coalition chairman and Netanyahu ally MK Miki Zohar told 103FM Radio that “If Blue and White don’t agree to a one-year budget, they’ll drag us to an election.”
The coalition agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White stipulates passing a two-year budget for 2020-2021. But Netanyahu has now demanded to change this part of the accord and go for a one-year budget for 2020 alone — essentially a budget for some three months.
In seeking to renege on his coalition deal with Gantz, Netanyahu has been citing the uncertainty created by the coronavirus crisis, but many see it as a way for him to back out of the power-sharing arrangement he signed with Gantz, who is slated to take over the premiership late next year.
Failing to pass a budget is the only way for Netanyahu to break up the government and lead to an election without being forced to hand over the reins of power to Gantz in the interim period. Passing a one-year budget now will give Netanyahu another election window next year, before the accord between the parties says he must deliver the premiership to Gantz.
But Zohar on Friday insisted that Netanyahu was only concerned with the good of the country.
“As time passes, with things developing on the coronavirus crisis front on both the health and economic levels, the conclusion is clear: we need a one-year budget,” Zohar said. “That’s why we’re insisting on it.”
The matter of reneging on his rotation deal with Gantz, he insisted, “is not the consideration guiding the prime minister. He’s shown in the past and will show in the future that his decisions are made for the benefit of the people of Israel.”
Asked about Likud’s drop in support in recent polls amid growing public displeasure with the government’s handling of the pandemic, Zohar said: “The number of [projected parliamentary] seats is irrelevant when deciding whether to go to an election or not. The only consideration is what is good for Israelis as far as the state budget is concerned.”
Top Treasury officials are said to have sided with Gantz recently, agreeing that at this point a budget for 2020-2021 is preferable to one that only deals with the last few months of the current year.
Zohar dismissed this, saying Netanyahu has “vast experience on economic matters… I tell you that this winter we don’t know what will happen in Israel. There could, heaven forbid, be a third wave and you don’t know what the economic needs will be.”
If the coalition fails to pass a state budget by August 25, the Knesset will automatically be dissolved and new elections will be called for November.
A pair of polls by Channel 13 and Kan on Thursday showed that in such an election — the fourth in less than two years — Gantz’s party would likely drop from its current 14 seats to 8-12. But Likud would also take a drubbing, falling from its current 36 to 29-30.
Meanwhile Bennett’s Yamina would massively increase its power, from the current five seats to 15-19.
But the bloc of right-wing and religious parties would grow from its current 58 seats to 62-63, potentially handing Netanyahu a right-wing coalition without the need for centrist parties.
A new poll by Channel 12 Friday generally agreed with those results, giving Likud 31 seats, Yamina 16, Shas 8 and United Torah Judaism 8, for a total of 63 seats to the bloc. On the center-left, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid-Telem will win 18 seats, the Joint List 15, Blue and White 11 and Meretz 6 (for a total of 50 seats).
Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, which is not generally counted among either bloc, will win 7 seats, the poll projected.
The premier is believed to prefer a scenario of him and his right-wing allies winning over 60 seats, hoping that the government would then be able to pass legislation granting him immunity from the criminal proceedings in his trial that are set to re-start in January.
Also Friday Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel claimed that he’s been offered “everything” to abandon the Blue and White-led bloc in the unity government and join a narrow right-wing coalition led solely by Netanyahu.
Hendel heads Derech Eretz, a right-leaning faction of two MKs who joined the government together with Gantz. Before Gantz and Netanyahu signed a coalition deal earlier this year, Hendel said the Likud leader’s people had offered him and fellow faction member Tzvi Hauser various senior posts in order to abandon Gantz and join a narrow right-wing government. The Derech Eretz leader ultimately refused, asserting that a broad, unity government was what the country needed most.
In a Facebook post on Friday, Hendel revealed that such offers were again being made. “I oppose breaking agreements that have been signed,” Hendel wrote. “I will not give a hand to a narrow government, as I have not given in the past; no matter what they offer me (and they have already offered me everything).”
Separately on Friday, Hebrew media reported that not a single item was put on the government’s agenda for Sunday’s cabinet meeting, further fueling election speculation.
Not since the current unity government was formed — and probably not for years — has no item been put on the agenda this late in the week, according to the reports.
The previous three rounds of elections ended inconclusively, but Gantz and Netanyahu agreed on a power-sharing deal after the vote in March. The deal split Blue and White, due to the party’s campaign pledge not to join a government led by the premier because of his indictment on graft charges.