Likud official claims Blue and White is hindering virus response to harm PM

As coalition disputes mount, party member quoted saying Gantz wants outbreak to persist; ‘Let us manage this crisis, don’t put a spoke in our wheel,’ Likud minister tells cabinet

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Amid deep disagreements between ministers over closure measures and economic policies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party launched a broadside Sunday against its main coalition partner, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party.

Blue and White “wants the coronavirus to stay here for a long time, thinking that if the medical and economic crisis continues, Bibi will fall,” an unnamed senior Likud member was quoted as saying by Channel 12 news, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

“Blue and White are deliberately making every decision difficult,” the Likud official charged.

There was no immediate reaction by Blue and White.

Many of the disagreements have to do with a controversial plan — approved in principle by the cabinet on Sunday — to hand out billions of shekels to Israelis in stimulus money to help cope with the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Divided ministers are hashing out the details of the plan, with Netanyahu, Gantz, Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, and Economy Minister Amir Peretz working to determine the best way to allocate the one-time payments, which will equal a total of NIS 6 billion ($1.75 billion). Netanyahu and Gantz are set to meet on Monday morning, on the handouts plan, and on how to handle the education system in the weeks ahead.

According to the original handouts plan announced by Netanyahu last Wednesday, individuals over 18 will get NIS 750 each, and families with kids will get between NIS 2,000 and NIS 3,000, with no distinctions between those more and less in need.

The proposal has been roundly criticized by Finance Ministry officials, the premier’s coalition partners, and the public. The criticism has mostly centered on the plan’s call to disburse money to all Israelis — regardless of income or whether they were hurt economically by the government-mandated restrictions to contain the virus — and its high cost.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz lead a weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Blue and White is pushing for those in need to be given preferential treatment. Netanyahu says he prefers speed and wants to avoid red tape and the need for income forms in order to ascertain who should get what.

Channel 13 reported that during Sunday’s cabinet meeting, at which the plan was approved in principle, Likud’s Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel clashed with Labor’s Economy Minister Amir Peretz, after the latter proposed forming a team separate from the National Security Council that would also supply the government with policy recommendations.

“During the first wave [of coronavirus infections] things went smoothly without the unity [government],” Gamliel retorted, referring to the Netanyahu-Gantz power-sharing agreement in May that says most decisions must be made with the approval of both the Likud-led and Blue and White-led blocs.

Then-minister of senior citizens Gila Gamliel speaks during the weekly government conference at PM Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on December 30, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Snapping at the dyed-in-the-wool socialist Peretz that the cabinet was not “a kibbutz union,” she accused his side of the government of putting “spokes in the wheels” of the decision-making process. She tweeted the same remarks hours later.

Meanwhile, disagreements also persisted regarding the possible ousting of the head of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee, Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton.

Netanyahu has reportedly been seeking to fire Shasha-Biton after she nixed a government decision earlier this month to shut gyms and swimming pools because the Health Ministry could not provide infection data backing the decision. She resisted pressure by the premier and ended up overturning the move.

On Saturday, she enraged Likud officials by once again stressing during an interview that all cabinet decisions would be strenuously reviewed by her committee and would not necessarily be approved. An unnamed senior Likud official told news outlets that Netanyahu would remove her from her post for disrupting the cabinet’s work.

Blue and White has said it will oppose Shasha-Biton’s ouster. However, Channel 12 reported Sunday that Netanyahu had not yet backed down from the idea.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

The report said the move would likely not go ahead before Monday’s next Coronavirus Committee meeting, where it is expected to again strike down some restrictions recently announced by the government.

Amid an ongoing rise in national infection rates, regulations announced in the early hours of Friday morning severely limited public gatherings until further notice, ordered the open-ended closure of restaurants for in-house seating for the foreseeable future (though that move was delayed to Tuesday after massive backlash by restaurateurs), ordered the open-ended closure of gyms and exercise/dance studios, and imposed multiple closures on weekends going forward, including of beaches, parks and other recreational activities.

After hours of discussion on the new measures Sunday, Shasha-Biton’s panel urged the cabinet to reverse its decision to close restaurants, and instead to allow them to operate at a third of capacity indoors, and while maintaining necessary distancing between customers outdoors. It also called to allow beaches to remain open and to allow gyms to continue to operate under strict distancing measures.

According to recent legislation, the cabinet can swiftly pass emergency coronavirus regulations without the need for Knesset approval, but the legislature must sign off on the decisions within a week or they are automatically annulled.

Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein have repeatedly warned in recent days that the latest restrictions were necessary in order to avoid a full lockdown down the road.

Israel’s case count passed 50,000 Sunday evening, standing at 50,289, with 28,205 of them active, and serious cases reached 252, of which 70 were on ventilators, according to the Health Ministry. It said 1,438 had been diagnosed in the previous 24 hours. The death toll stood at 409.

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