Netanyahu confirms support for budget delay, urges political stability

While hailing proposed bill that would avert immediate threat of elections, PM says previous government was ‘more efficient’ than current one

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu confirmed Monday that he has accepted a compromise proposal that would delay the deadline for passing the state budget and remove the immediate threat of early elections.

Derech Eretz, a political faction made up of two MKs, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, elected as part of the Blue and White alliance, proposed a bill Sunday night that would postpone the August 25 deadline for passing a state budget by several months, granting more time for Netanyahu and partner-rival Blue and White chief Benny Gantz to hammer out an agreement in their ongoing budget dispute.

“We need to stabilize the government so that it will be able to operate efficiently,” Netanyahu said Monday at a conference of mayors and local council leaders.

“That’s why when MK Hauser, from the Derech Eretz faction, told me yesterday, ‘Give another chance to stabilize the political system so that we will have a government that can continue fighting the coronavirus,’ I said, ‘I am willing to do that,'” the premier said.

Knesset members Yoaz Hendel (L) and Zvi Hauser (R) seen at the Knesset, ahead of the opening session of the new parliament on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“We need to make every effort to avoid elections, stabilize the government, fight the coronavirus health-wise, and fight for the reopening of the economy,” he added. “That’s what we’re doing. I hope we’re also doing it successfully.”

He then told the local leaders that they were “big partners” in that effort and in enforcing government health restrictions.

However, Netanyahu appeared to acknowledge frequent criticism that the current unity government formed in May is bloated and inefficient.

“In the previous government, we made correct decisions on time — it was thinner and more efficient,” he said. “That helped us overcome the first wave of the coronavirus. Also in this government, which is more complicated, we have made important decisions.”

Netanyahu and Gantz have been locked in a bitter standoff over the state budget that threatens to topple the government and force new elections. Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to pass a two-year budget covering 2020 and 2021 as part of the coalition deal between their parties that was signed in May, but the premier is now demanding a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, given the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Gantz is insisting on a budget that runs through next year, citing previous agreements and insisting it would help stabilize a teetering economy. He is concerned that Netanyahu plans to use next year’s budget negotiations as an excuse to break up the government to avoid a transfer of power in November 2021 under their premiership rotation agreement. If no budget is passed by August 25, new elections are automatically called.

Likud’s promise to support Hauser’s bill is reportedly only for the preliminary and first readings, not the second and third final readings, leading to speculation that it is just a political ploy and the country could yet face early elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with then-tourism minister Yariv Levin during a vote at the assembly hall of the Knesset on February 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) warned earlier Monday that, although the last-minute proposal could prevent the coalition crisis from triggering elections, the government was still facing significant difficulties.

“We are far from solving the problem,” Levin told Army Radio, noting there is a “long list” of disagreements between Likud and Blue and White.

“This is not what we intended when we set up the government. We can’t work like this,” he said of the Blue and White party.

Levin rejected the notion that Netanyahu is seeking elections.

“Netanyahu clearly said that a supreme effort must be made to prevent elections,” Levin said. “I hope that is how it will be, but it is clear that by way of mutual paralysis and disagreements we will not go far.”

“As a partner in drafting the [coalition] agreement, the way things are being done until now cannot continue — this is not the way to run the country,” Levin said. “I hope that the initiative of the Derech Eretz party to push off elections and the willingness of the prime minister will bring us to… a new path.”

Levin criticized Gantz, who reportedly shouted at Netanyahu the day before, during a meeting of ministers, who had gathered to discuss the budget.

“When a man raises his voice, it is because he doesn’t have good arguments to make,” Levin said.

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

Finance Minister Israel Katz (Likud) told Kan on Monday that he believes the proposed bill to extend the budget deadline past August 25 will be passed by the Knesset.

“Pushing off the elections is a good thing — but the budget must be passed now without waiting until November,” he said.

Like Levin, Katz denied that Netanyahu “is looking for an escape route” from the coalition agreement, and accused Blue and White of using its budget demands “as a political tool to reach March 2021 and the rotation in premiership.”

Katz said he does not want another election campaign, which would be Israel’s fourth since April 2019. “At the moment, I want a partner, unity and to attend to the public. As soon as the initiative is accepted and the sword of elections is removed, it will be possible to move on.”

Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay, of the Blue and White party, told Kan that “as long as the other side pulls all kinds of maneuvers and tries any way possible to avoid the agreement I can’t be sure that at the end Gantz will be prime minister.”

He defended his party’s insistence on a two-year budget — as opposed to Likud’s one-year plan. “We are talking about a budget that will take Israel to the end of 2021, all of the senior treasury officials support it. The finance minister and the prime minister need to get used to the fact that we are partners, which is written and defined in law and in the coalition agreement.”

Izhar Shay poses at the Knesset, on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In announcing its proposed bill, Derech Eretz said in a statement Sunday that it had the blessing of Netanyahu as well as Blue and White.

Blue and White welcomed Likud’s “willingness to safeguard Israel’s political stability” during the crisis, and said it “will do everything in its power to prevent terrible elections in the throes of one of the most serious crises the country has ever known.”

Aryeh Deri’s Shas party, a close ally of Netanyahu, also immediately threw its support behind the bill.

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.

Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to create an emergency unity government in May due to the pandemic, after three consecutive rounds of elections — in April 2019, September 2019 and March 2020 — failed to yield a clear winner.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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