Ministers to vote on cash-for-all virus grants as coalition tensions flare

Ministers to vote on cash-for-all virus grants as coalition tensions flare

Likud and Blue and White agree to advance Netanyahu’s economic proposal, but Benny Gantz says he’ll prevent PM from ousting lawmaker from Knesset oversight panel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry, in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry, in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)

The cabinet on Sunday was set to approve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to disburse a total of NIS 6 billion ($1.75 billion) in handouts to all Israelis to help cope with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, as coalition tensions simmered over the government’s coronavirus policies.

The proposal will advance after Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, the two main government parties, agreed on Saturday night to raise the plan for a cabinet vote and then set up a special ministerial panel that will decide how the funds are dispensed.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz agreed that the budget for the handouts will be approved tomorrow in the cabinet,” the two said in a statement. “In addition, the government will authorize a ministerial panel to decide how the money is distributed.”

The plan, as outlined by Netanyahu last week, would see couples with one child receive a one-time payment of NIS 2,000 ($583), which rises to NIS 2,500 ($729) for those with two children, and NIS 3,000 ($875) for those with three or more. Single Israelis aged 18 and over would each receive NIS 750 ($218).

The proposal was roundly criticized by Finance Ministry officials, the premier’s coalition partners and the public. The criticism 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.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Blue and White was seeking to introduce changes to the economic plan to see the grants only go to lower and middle income citizens.

TV reports said the proposal would likely require a full Knesset vote and could therefore take a week to be implemented.

The plan was initially left off the agenda for Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, which was released on Friday, according to both the Ynet news site and Kan public broadcaster. By Saturday, though, it was on the schedule for a ministerial vote.

The upcoming cabinet meeting comes with Likud and Blue and White at loggerheads over Netanyahu’s plan to remove a Likud lawmaker as chairwoman of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee.

Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton put her position on the line for the second time in less than a week Saturday, when she told television news her panel would review whether to approve the latest cabinet decisions on coronavirus restrictions.

Likud Knesset Member Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks to Channel 12 news on July 18, 2020. (screenshot)

Following her interview to Channel 12’s “Meet the Press,” a senior Likud official told the network that Netanyahu intended to fire and replace her.

Gantz opposed the move.

“I think it is appropriate for the Coronavirus Committee to accept the cabinet decisions… but we must respect the Knesset’s role,” Gantz said during a faction meeting. “I am working to prevent the firing of Shasha-Biton and I hope we’ll avoid that move.”

Likud had threatened to remove Shasha-Biton from her position earlier in the week — after she and her fellow committee members voted to reverse a cabinet decision last week to shutter gyms and pools, citing a lack of supporting data — but opposition from Blue and White led the party to back down.

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.

However, Shasha-Biton’s apparently dogged commitment to fulfill that mandate has been met with scorn by the prime minister and his allies in Likud.

In her Saturday interview with Channel 12, Shasha-Biton spoke out against the government’s decision to close beaches on weekends from next weekend and to shutter restaurants starting Tuesday, saying the committee would demand data justifying the closures in order to sign off on them. She added that the Health Ministry has provided no statistics to justify the sweeping measures.

She said her panel would discuss the latest restrictions on Sunday, despite claims by coalition chairman MK Miki Zohar that the committee would no longer be tasked with reviewing the government’s coronavirus measures.

Israelis enjoy the beach in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

In response to the latest threat to fire her, Shasha-Biton said in a later statement that she respects the decisions of the government, but that it was the Knesset’s job “to review the work of the government.”

She added: “I entered politics for one purpose: to serve the people of Israel. If I have to pay a personal price for it, I will accept it.”

Amid an ongoing rise in national infection rates, the latest government regulations announced late Thursday severely limited public gatherings until further notice, ordered the closure of restaurants for in-house seating for the foreseeable future (though that move has been delayed to Tuesday after massive backlash by restaurateurs) and ordered multiple closures on weekends going forward, including of beaches, parks and other recreational activities.

Last Monday’s Coronavirus Committee vote to immediately reopen outdoor swimming pools and gyms, exempting them from a cabinet decision last week that shuttered parts of the economy in an effort to curb the spread of the pandemic, inflamed tensions within Netanyahu’s Likud party and sparked efforts to oust Shasha-Biton. The party said later it would only take disciplinary measures against Shasha-Biton, after the Blue and White party said it wouldn’t back her ouster.

A gym-goer and trainer in Jerusalem, May 11, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The committee made the decision against Netanyahu’s wishes, after the premier waged a pressure campaign for Shasha-Biton to keep gyms closed, including meeting with her minutes before Monday’s committee meeting. She nevertheless voted to reopen pools and gyms, as did committee members from the opposition, after the Health Ministry failed to present infection data that showed their closure was justified.

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.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Saturday night lashed out against the government’s handling of the pandemic.

“This is a failure at the level of the [1973] Yom Kippur War and there is one man who is responsible and it’s Netanyahu,” he told Channel 12.

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