Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the swift passage of a state budget on Sunday, amid rumors that he intends to dissolve the governing coalition and bring Israel to its fourth election since the beginning of 2019.
In light of the public health and security challenges facing Israel, “there is no reason to go to elections,” Netanyahu declared during his Likud party’s weekly faction meeting.
“Israel does not need elections, it needs a budget, as fast as possible. All the economists say this. If we pass a budget now, we will be able to start the school year in September” and “pass on more and more money” to small business owners, the self-employed and the unemployed, he declared.
Netanyahu’s statement came only hours after reports said that lawmakers were poised to present a bill postponing the deadline for passing the state budget in an effort to prevent early elections, amid fierce disagreements between the government’s Likud and Blue and White parties.
The government will automatically dissolve if no state budget is passed by August 25.
Though the coalition deal between Likud and Blue and White mandates a two-year budget, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing for a budget that will only cover the rest of 2020, citing the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, however, has insisted that a two-year budget be passed, as stipulated in the coalition deal, saying it would provide greater financial certainty to those hurt economically by the government’s lockdown measures.
But commentators believe there are other issues at stake, as the passage of a one-year budget — or the failure to pass one at all — could allow Netanyahu to kick off new elections without having to hand over the premiership to Gantz next year, as stipulated by the coalition deal.
In an attempt to temporarily defuse the crisis, legislation is planned to be introduced by the Derech Eretz party, whose two members are former Blue and White MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, according to the Haaretz newspaper.
The reported bill would delay the August 25 deadline by three months, to November 25.
“Anyone who thinks that it will be possible to deal with the coronavirus and the flu this winter while sending Israel in the polls does not understand what we are facing,” Hauser tweeted on Sunday.
“The wave we are currently facing is minor compared to what is expected to come. Only a unity government can handle the task.”
Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz have publicly commented on the proposal to postpone the deadline.
Speaking during his own Blue and White party’s faction meeting on Sunday, Gantz called on Netanyahu to stick to their coalition agreement and to pass a budget that will cover the entirety of 2021.
“The citizens of Israel deserve a safety net for the year ahead. This requires a state budget, a responsible budget with long-term stability. No one should get up in the morning and ask what his fate will be.”
Going to elections again would be a sign of “a lack of national responsibility” and show that the prime minister was “ignoring the will of the people,” he said.
According to Channel 12, growing elements within Blue and White are advocating giving in to Netanyahu’s demand for a single-year budget
Last Wednesday, Haaretz reported that Netanyahu had decided to seek another round of elections following the Jerusalem District Court’s ruling the previous week that witnesses will begin testifying in his criminal trial in January, with hearings to take place three times a week. The prime minister faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The report said Netanyahu fears petitions to the High Court of Justice will demand he be barred from continuing to serve as prime minister while he is on trial and that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will back this stance, making it easier for the justices to rule in favor of the petitioners.
Unnamed associates of Netanyahu were quoted as saying that the premier’s main aim in going back to the polls would be to regain control over the Justice Ministry and that he would campaign heavily against the judicial system ahead of the elections. The current justice minister, Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, has defended the legal system in the face of unsubstantiated claims by Netanyahu and his allies that he is the victim of an “attempted political coup.”
Last Thursday Netanyahu dismissed that report and others as “absurd,” but warned that a return to the polls would indeed result if his coalition does not pass a state budget in the next month.
During an interview with Channel 12 on Saturday, Gantz said that he opposed another round of premature elections amid fierce disagreements between his Blue and White party and Netanyahu’s Likud over the state budget, and that should he emerge from this coalition government as a “political sucker, so be it.”
On Sunday, the network reported that Netanyahu is looking at dismantling the current unity government but that before calling new elections, he will try to exploit a loophole in the coalition agreement to form an alternative government.
According to the report, which cited unnamed Likud sources, Netanyahu will try to pull in Hendel and Hauser’s Derech Eretz party and others to get a majority of 61 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset.
The Prime Minister’s Office denied the report.