Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly decided against passing a state budget by a late-August deadline, in a gambit that would trigger new elections in November.
Quoting sources who have spoken with Netanyahu and his associates, Haaretz reported Wednesday evening that the premier is seeking to create a sense of chaos in the coalition to shore up public support for breaking up the government.
The current government, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, was sworn in in May after a 508-day crisis that saw Israel slog through three inconclusive rounds of elections. While Gantz campaigned on not joining a government led by Netanyahu due to the prime minister’s indictment on corruption charges, he cited the coronavirus pandemic as the explanation for his reversal.
According to the report, Netanyahu decided to seek another round of elections following the Jerusalem District Court’s ruling last week that witnesses will begin testifying in his criminal trial in January, with hearings to take place three times a week. 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 is 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 a “attempted political coup.”
While aware of the risks of another election, which would come as Israel is mired in the coronavirus pandemic and a major economic crisis, the report said Netanyahu has decided that it is better than the alternatives, and that he has no intention of honoring a rotation agreement that would see Gantz take over for him as prime minister in November 2021.
Though the coalition deal between Likud and Blue and White mandates a two-year budget, Netanyahu has been pushing for a budget that will only cover the rest of 2020, citing the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. 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.
The passage of only a one-year budget — or the failure to pass one at all — could allow Netanyahu to enter new elections without having to hand over the premiership to Gantz as stipulated by the coalition deal.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, came out Wednesday against the possibility of new elections.
“We’re on the brink of an abyss. This isn’t an exaggeration. The country can’t allow itself political paralysis like this while we’re stuck in a severe health, social and economic crisis,” he told the party’s weekly newspaper HaDerech. “The destruction of the coalition and moving up of elections can’t be allowed. The people of Israel won’t forgive whoever leads them to elections at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.”
He said it was possible to resolve the disagreements over the budget and that Shas would back any solution supported by Likud and Blue and White.
The Haaretz report came as the coalition was again thrust into crisis, after the Blue and White party voted in favor of a bill outlawing psychotherapists from performing gay conversion, despite the opposition of Likud and its ultra-Orthodox allies.
Under the coalition agreement, no decisions — apart from West Bank annexation — can be promoted without the mutual agreement of both Likud and Blue and White.
A Blue and White source was quoted by Channel 12 news acknowledging the vote was “retaliation” for Likud’s backing of a proposed parliamentary panel to probe Supreme Court judges’ alleged conflicts of interests. That move, opposed by Blue and White, was ultimately rejected by the parliament despite Likud’s support.
The Walla news site said Gantz had told the United Torah Judaism party that Blue and White backed the bill to outlaw conversion therapy because Netanyahu wants elections.
“We won’t turn the other cheek,” a Blue and White official told the website.
In light of the latest flareup in the coalition and ongoing disagreements over the budget, coalition sources told Channel 13 news on Wednesday evening that there was a “real danger” of fresh elections later this year.
“The odds are 50-50,” an ally of Netanyahu told the network.
The report said Blue and White did not believe that Netanyahu is truly gunning for new elections and it was therefore hoping he would back a two-year budget. Netanyahu’s associates were claiming that they had a majority to pass a short-term budget without Blue and White’s support, but refused to say where they would get the votes from.
Recent polls have forecast that together with right-wing religious parties, Likud would secure a Knesset majority if new elections were called. But the polls have also shown a sharp drop in approval of Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic, in particular with regard to the economic fallout.