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Netanyahu ally admits political considerations behind failure to pass budget

Miki Zohar confirms accusations that state budget is being held up, in part, to prevent Gantz becoming PM next year; finance minister rejects remark

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Coalition whip Miki Zohar, a close associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, openly admitted Tuesday that there were political considerations behind the foot-dragging in preparing the state budget, seeming to confirm widespread suspicions that the ruling Likud party is not passing the 2020 and 2021 budgets in order to thwart Benny Gantz’s scheduled replacement of Netanyahu late next year.

The power-sharing coalition deal between the Likud and Blue and White parties states that Gantz will take over as prime minister in November 2021, and if the government falls before that date, Gantz will be transitional prime minister. The only exception is if the government is dissolved due to a failure to approve a state budget.

Likud members have thus far argued that the failure to pass the budget stemmed from professional difficulties and lack of cooperation from Gantz’s Blue and White party.

But Zohar, speaking Tuesday night with right-wing network Channel 20, deviated from that message.

“Of course political considerations also exist here,” he said when asked if the budget was being deliberately held up to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister.

Likud MK Miki Zohar at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Thus far, Blue and White have not demonstrated genuine partnership with us and haven’t shown that they intend to work with us in full cooperation,” he said. “They took a different course of action on many occasions, and it is possible that for the [coalition] agreement to be implemented we will first demand that they fulfill their part.”

Likud has accused Blue and White of failing to implement certain elements of the deal and of acting as an “opposition within the government.”

Zohar, who is regularly criticized for his combative remarks in media appearances and public statements, has in recent days promised to tone down his rhetoric, apologized and said his past statements have hurt the Likud party.

Blue and White tweeted an excerpt from Zohar’s Tuesday interview and commented: “For those who still had any doubt.”

The party’s Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn told Army Radio Wednesday that Zohar “said what everyone knows.”

But Finance Minister Israel Katz (Likud) rejected Zohar’s remark.

“His words do not reflect the opinion of the Finance Ministry, which is advancing the 2021 budget in accordance with the published timeframe and with purely professional considerations,” he wrote on Twitter.

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

On Wednesday, Zohar tweeted that Blue and White were “distorting” his words, even though his remarks were understood the same way by Katz, other public figures and journalists.

“I meant political considerations because of which Blue and White is continuing to lead a government within a government and that if that carries on they will cause the government to dissolve,” he said.

Netanyahu retweeted that post, adding: “At this time of coronavirus outbreak, I call on Blue and White to stop with the spins, return to unity and work with us for the benefit of Israel’s citizens.”

Blue and White’s leadership threatened Monday that new elections would be held if a state budget for 2020-2021 was not passed by the end of November, prompting Katz to accuse the centrist party of “attempted blackmail.”

After days of threatening action if the government fails to pass a budget according to the coalition agreement, Blue and White chairman Gantz sharpened his ultimatum, saying unequivocally, “If there is no budget, we’ll go to elections.”

Israel has limped through 2020 without a state budget, even though the coalition agreement signed by Blue and White and Likud in April provided for a two-year 2020-21 budget to be passed in the summer.

While the initial budget deadline had been in August, with a failure to pass the 2020-2021 budget by then requiring the Knesset to dissolve, Likud and Blue and White agreed to a last-minute compromise that gave the parties 100 more days. That deadline expires on December 23.

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