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Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar opposes new elections, says many party members agree

Lawmaker says both Netanyahu and Gantz would be to blame if budget crisis isn’t resolved by August 25 deadline; says premier hasn’t spoken to him since May

Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar during a Knesset plenary session debate on MK Haim Katz's request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution, February 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar during a Knesset plenary session debate on MK Haim Katz's request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution, February 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gideon Sa’ar, a member of the ruling Likud party and an internal rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, came out strongly on Sunday evening against the possibility of new elections amid a standoff over the state budget.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party has been demanding the government pass a two-year budget covering all of 2020 and 2021, as per the coalition agreement signed between the two parties in May, which requires the budget to be passed by August 25 or the government falls.

Netanyahu has insisted instead on a one-year budget, saying the coronavirus pandemic had upended economic forecasts for next year. Since under Israeli law the failure to pass a 2021 budget by next March would force new elections, Blue and White has accused Netanyahu of deliberately attempting to violate the coalition agreement with his budget demand to avoid handing over the prime minister post to Gantz in November 2021, as per the deal.

If elections are called, it would be the fourth national vote since April 2019.

In an interview with Channel 13 news, Sa’ar said Netanyahu and Gantz would both be at fault if elections are held prematurely.

“Many of my friends in Likud think like me that there shouldn’t be elections,” said Sa’ar, who unsuccessfully challenged Netanyahu in party primaries ahead of the latest election in March.

He said going to additional elections in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic crisis — “the most severe the state has known” — would lead to a further loss of trust in the political system.

“Elections would be a blow to the country,” Sa’ar said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, left, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 25, 2012. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90/ File)

He stressed that elections weren’t a foregone conclusion and that if there is goodwill on both sides, a solution on the budget could be reached before the August 25 deadline.

“Fifteen days is a very long time in Israeli politics,” he said. “A solution can be achieved.”

He suggested a compromise that would see a budget for the remainder of 2020 being approved, but with work on next year’s budget starting right afterwards.

“There needs to be flexibility while maintaining trustworthiness,” he added. “If we go to elections there will be no budget, whether single-year or two-year, and Israel will be harmed. I will support any agreement that is reached.”

Sa’ar also said that Netanyahu has not spoken with him since May.

According to leaks from a closed-door meeting earlier Sunday of the “coronavirus cabinet” — a cabinet committee charged with stemming the virus’s spread and dealing with its economic fallout — Gantz angrily accused Netanyahu of deliberately deceiving him, saying the prime minister had never intended to honor the coalition agreement between their parties.

Netanyahu retorted sarcastically that he couldn’t hear his defense minister, according to Channel 12, which cited three ministers who it said were at the meeting. “Will someone turn up the volume? We can’t hear,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, speaks with the director of the Institute of Biological Research, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, at the laboratory in Ness Ziona on August 6, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

The report also said Gantz then accused Finance Minister Israel Katz of trying to force a one-year budget by instructing the Finance Ministry to only draft a 2020 budget, in violation of the coalition deal. With the two-year budget unprepared, it would now take weeks to produce it, weeks that would mean further instability for Israel’s teetering economy.

The developments come amid growing speculation that Netanyahu was deliberately pushing Gantz into a corner in order to dissolve the government and force new elections.

If a new election is called by the time of the budget deadline on August 25, it would be held in mid- to late-November — most likely on November 18 or 25 — and would constitute the fourth general election in 19 months.

The tensions between the two politicians have already nearly frozen the cabinet’s work. Earlier Sunday, in an unprecedented first, the weekly cabinet meeting was scuttled after Netanyahu and Gantz failed to agree on an agenda.

Under their coalition deal, both parties must okay the agenda for the weekly cabinet meeting, generally held on Sundays. But with no agreed-upon agenda, the meeting was called off.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits an IDF Home Front Command base in Ramle on August 4, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

A Sunday morning newspaper report cited senior officials from Blue and White saying it was a “mistake” to enter into a coalition with the Likud party, and that there was no real possibility to resolve the budget crisis because Netanyahu was determined to take the country to the polls.

“In the end it was a mistake to enter the government under Bibi if after three months everything falls apart,” one unnamed party official told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

“We were not sure if Netanyahu would honor the rotation agreement [according to which Gantz becomes PM in November 2021], but now it turns out he is not even waiting until November 2021 but wants to dismantle everything now, simply out of fear that [Blue and White chief Benny] Gantz will replace him as prime minister.”

Likud, meanwhile, has insisted Blue and White’s insistence on a two-year budget would hurt Israelis.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“They’ve crossed a red line. Blue and White has moved from a political disagreement to seriously harming the wider public,” Katz told Army Radio on Sunday morning.

While Netanyahu has to hand over the premiership to Gantz if he calls new elections before the Blue and White chief takes over as prime minister in November 2021, the coalition deal made an exception for a failure to pass a budget, leading to speculation the Likud leader was forcing the budget crisis now to avoid having to leave office in 15 months’ time.

Gantz and Netanyahu agreed on a power-sharing deal in May after three consecutive rounds of elections proved indecisive. The deal split Blue and White, due to the party’s campaign pledge not to join a government led by the premier because of the graft charges against him. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Telem’s Moshe Ya’alon departed the Blue and White coalition for the opposition while Gantz and fellow party leader Gabi Ashkenazi, now the foreign minister, took their half of the faction into the Netanyahu-led coalition.

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