Report: Gantz, Bennett meet to discuss triggering early elections

After Likud ignores Blue and White’s October ultimatum to pass a state budget, frustrated party leaders said to sit with various opposition figures on options moving forward

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (right) and Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party. (composite image: Flash90)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (right) and Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party. (composite image: Flash90)

As the tumultuous US elections draw to a close, fresh Israeli elections are perhaps once again likely as Defense Minister Benny Gantz is reported to have met with the leader of the right-wing Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, to discuss the possibility of dissolving the government and triggering a new vote.

According to a Sunday report by Kan news, Gantz believes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t keep his promise to hand over the premiership in November 2021 as per the power-sharing agreement they signed, and is frustrated by the continued delays in passing a state budget for this year and next, which would all but guarantee he would become prime minister.

Members of Gantz’s Blue and White party have also reportedly met with the head of the opposition Yair Lapid in order to coordinate their moves. The two parties were once united under the name Blue and White but had an acrimonious split over Gantz’s decision to join Netanyahu’s government after the March 2020 election, Israel’s third in a year amid continued political gridlock.

Blue and White and the opposition parties reportedly agree that the most realistic option is to agree to dissolve the Knesset and coordinate a date for what would be the fourth national election since April 2019.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem at his office in the Knesset, Jerusalem, on September 14, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

In a Sunday morning interview with Kan, Bennett, whose opposition Yamina party is flying high in the polls, refused to comment on the reports of the opposition preparing to dissolve the government, saying “there are no elections.”

“When elections take place I will clearly say who should lead the country,” said Bennett, adding that the situation in the country was “very bad” and that “we are on the path to economic decline. The current Netanyahu-led government is failing miserably.”

If elections were held today, a Channel 12 poll said Saturday, Netanyahu’s Likud would drop to 28 seats, Bennett’s Yamina would more than quadruple its support to 22 seats. Lapid’s Yesh Atid would get 17 seats, the mainly Arab Joint List would win 13, and Gantz’s Blue and White would score 11. The poll also gave 8 seats to each of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and UTJ, 7 seats to Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party and six to Meretz. The poll also saw Bennett closing in on Netanyahu as the preferred choice of prime minister, with 28% backing compared to 32% for Netanyahu.

In October, Gantz escalated his attacks on Netanyahu for stalling on a state budget, saying that failure to pass a budget would be “a crime against the state and its citizens.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (R) and then-outgoing Defense Minister Naftali Bennett bump elbows at a passing of the baton ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2020. (Oded Karni/GPO)

Gantz said that even new elections would be preferable to the current situation, and suggested that he could try to form an alternative government with opposition parties.

The Knesset last passed a state budget in March 2018, which was in force until the end of 2019. The lack of a comprehensive budget law in 2020 has left many ministries struggling with unexpected budget shortfalls and made it difficult to plan ahead. Many organizations, including those that ran the largest programs for at-risk youth in the country, were forced to close for part of the year as government support dried up. Some treasury officials have warned that Israel’s credit rating with international lending agencies could be hurt.

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

To prevent either side from bringing down the government, the power-sharing deal stipulates that if one side triggers a coalition collapse, the other automatically receives the premiership for the three months leading up to an election as well as the transition period in its wake.

But one of the few loopholes in that deal says this failsafe does not occur if the sides fail to pass a budget, leading to early elections.

However, Netanyahu has moved to demand a single-year budget, in contravention of deal, citing the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Blue and White suspects he is attempting to wiggle out of the power-sharing deal and to leave himself a window to bring down the government during 2021 budget talks next year.

The initial budget deadline had been in August, with a failure to pass the 2020-2021 budget by then requiring the Knesset to dissolve. But Likud and Blue and White agreed to a last-minute compromise that gave the parties until December 23.

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