Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel claimed on Friday 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as talk of a fourth consecutive election continued to escalate.
Hendel heads Derech Eretz, a right-leaning faction of two MKs who joined the government together with Blue and White chairman Benny 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 with Netanyahu apparently refused to budge from his insistence on passing a budget that only covers the rest of 2020 — despite signing a coalition deal with Gantz that envisioned a budget through 2021.
“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 have already offered me everything).”
Failure to pass a budget by August 25 will trigger automatic elections in November, in what would be the fourth round of voting in less than two years.
Amid deep distrust between the two parties, Gantz has vowed not to back down from his demand for a two-year budget, as stipulated by the coalition agreement.
In seeking to renege on his coalition deal with Gantz and pass only a budget for the remainder of the current year, 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.
“The State of Israel needs a stable government that respects coalition agreements and a budget longer than two months,” Hendel wrote. “Anything else would be irresponsible.”
Polls show Gantz’s party plummeting to single digits as Blue and White licks its wounds resulting from joining a Netanyahu-led government despite vowing repeatedly throughout three campaigns never to do so. But Likud is also hemorrhaging support, with a Thursday poll showing the party dropping from its current 36 seats to 29 in a sign of the public’s dissatisfaction of Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic.
However, surveys still indicate that the right-wing, religious parties would near the long-coveted 61-seat majority, with Likud remaining the largest party. The premier is believed to prefer such a scenario, hoping that the government would then be able to pass legislation granting him immunity from the criminal proceedings that are set to re-start in January.
Repeated polls have also indicated that Derech Eretz would fail to cross the electoral threshold. Hendel said he was not worried and that his slate “will be here in the next round as well.”
However, he asserted that “during an economic crisis with one million people unemployed, the task of the government is to take care of [the public’s] interest, not its political interest.”
“I do not intend to sit still and watch personal interests outweigh national interests,” he added, in an apparent shot at Netanyahu.
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.
Channel 12 reported that prominent strategic adviser Moshe Klughaft had joined Netanyahu’s team in addition to his political team.
There were also reports that Netanyahu’s Facebook election chatbot had resumed its operations, but the Netanyahu campaign said they were old messages and the chatbot had never been disabled.
If fresh elections are called, they would be the fourth since April 2019. 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.
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 to avoid having to leave office.