Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night dismissed as “absurd” reports that he intends to trigger new elections in November, but warned that a return to the polls would indeed result if his coalition does not pass a state budget in the next month.
At a press conference introducing the government’s newly appointed coronavirus “czar,” former Health Ministry chief Ronni Gamzu, Netanyahu was asked about reports circulating in the past day that he intends to capitalize on the falling political fortunes of his coalition partner, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, bring down the government over the budget, and thus avoid having to hand over the prime minister post to Gantz in November 2021 as specified in their agreement.
“I’m not aiming for [early] elections. That’s absurd,” Netanyahu said. “We are in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. We have to deal with it. We also have to pass a budget. It can pass in a minute… or a very short time.”
Alluding to the fact that the coalition would automatically fall if no state budget is passed in the next month, however, Netanyahu added: “The only reason we would go to elections would be if we don’t pass the budget. We have until, I believe, August 24… If you pass the budget, there are no elections… And it’s not passed [already] because my partners are refusing to do so.”
Blue and White, he charged, was connecting the budget “to all kinds of political considerations.”
For his part, he said, he remained committed to the agreement on rotating the prime ministership.
The Blue and White party immediately rejected Netanyahu’s assertion that it is to blame for the budget impasse. “The prime minister needs to stop propelling [Israel] to elections and do two things: Take care of the coronavirus crisis with a long-term budget and honor the [coalition] agreement he signed two months ago,” Blue and White said in a statement.
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.
But commentators believe there are other issues at stake, as 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.
According to a Haaretz report Wednesday, Netanyahu has 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 an “attempted political coup.”
Netanyahu spoke Thursday evening, soon after the release of two new TV surveys showing his Likud losing ground if elections were held today — not to Gantz, but to right-wing party Yamina, headed by Naftali Bennett, which is currently sitting in the opposition.
“I’ve been in politics a long time. I’ve seen surveys rise and fall,” Netanyahu said, insisting that he had never acted on the basis of surveys but, rather, according to the national interest. “And that’s how I’ll keep working,” he said.
He also criticized the “populism” of MKs — referring to the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, headed by Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton — who have reversed a series of ministerial restrictions to tackle COVID-19. Hence, he said, the coalition on Wednesday passed legislation — a so-called “Great Coronavirus Law” — to strengthen the government’s decision-making authority and make it harder for the Knesset to reverse vital moves.
The two TV surveys both showed Netanyahu’s Likud slipping, Bennett’s Yamina rising fast, and widespread public dissatisfaction with the coalition’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
If elections were held today, the Channel 13 survey put the party standings as follows: Likud, 31 seats; Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid 19; Yamina 16; the Joint (Arab) List 15; Benny Gantz’s Blue and White 11; Yisrael Beytenu 8; Meretz 7; United Torah Judaism 7 and Shas 6.
Those findings represent an ongoing slide in support for Likud and a continuing rise for Yamina, the network noted. Bennett, a former defense minister, has been a prominent critic of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
In terms of blocs, the Channel 13 poll added up to 60 seats for the right and ultra-Orthodox parties and 52 seats for the center, left and Arab parties, with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu assigned to neither side. (Currently, Bennett’s Yamina sits in the opposition, while Gantz’s centrist Blue and White is part of the “emergency coalition.”)
A Channel 12 survey added up to a slightly better reading for the right-Orthodox bloc.
It showed the parties as follows: Likud, 32 seats; Yesh Atid 18; Joint List 15; Yamina 15; Blue and White 9; Shas 8; United Torah Judaism 8; Meretz 8; Yisrael Beytenu 7.
Those figures mean a right-Orthodox bloc of 63, a center-left-Arab bloc of 50, and Yisrael Beytenu, not assigned to either side, with 7 seats.
Netanyahu has been reported Wednesday and Thursday to be considering a move toward elections as soon as November — for what would be the fourth time in less than 20 months — a scenario that President Reuven Rivlin intervened to warn against earlier Thursday.
Channel 12 political analyst Amit Segal said Netanyahu would grab the results of his channel’s poll “with both hands” if he could, but noted that Likud is sliding — showing five fewer seats than in a similar poll two weeks ago, which means an election gambit could be extremely risky.
In response to further questions, the Channel 13 poll showed 76 percent unhappy with the coalition’s handling of the economic impact of the pandemic, and 60% dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s helming of the crisis. Even more, 66%, are not happy with Gantz’s performance as defense minister.
Asked for their preferred prime minister, 44% said Netanyahu, 16% Lapid and 11% Gantz.
Fifty-seven percent opposed elections now, and 53% said they’d consider Netanyahu to be responsible if Israel was pushed to new elections.
Channel 12’s survey, for its part, showed that public satisfaction with Netanyahu’s handling of the health crisis has crashed since May. In May, 74% said he was doing a good job; that figure is 38% today. In May, 23% said he was doing a bad job; that figure is 58% today.
The Channel 13 survey was conducted by Prof Camil Fuchs and the Midgam Project. 702 respondents were questioned. The margin of error was 3.9%. The Channel 12 survey was conducted by Midgam among 503 respondents, with a 4% margin of error.