Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they will not support new elections before a state budget is passed, according to a new report Saturday, amid rumblings of a brewing coalition crisis surrounding the budget.
The report by Channel 12 appeared to limit Netanyahu’s maneuvering space as he clashes with Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz over whether to pass a one-year or two-year budget, with Haredi legislators signaling they will not allow the matter to be used as a pretext for a new national vote.
During the 2019-2020 political crisis that led to three elections in the space of a single year, Netanyahu’s bargaining position was buoyed by the formation of the so-called “right-wing bloc” that insisted the only he should lead Israel’s next government.
That bloc consisted of the national religious Yamina — now in the opposition after being spurned by the premier — and the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. The prime minister would likely be loath to enter a new election campaign without the support of his Haredi partners.
Shas party leader Aryeh Deri is reported to have vouched for the prime minister during coalition-building talks with Gantz, promising the Blue and White leader that he would hold Netanyahu to any agreements reached.
Budget discussions are the most contentious of any coalition, and with the failure to pass a budget resulting in the automatic calling of new elections, Netanyahu has in recent years pushed for a two-year budget to reduce the chances of his governments falling.
With budget negotiations expected to be especially difficult in the current unity government due to the inclusion of parties from both the right and the left, Likud and Blue and White included in their coalition agreement a commitment “to pass, in an orderly manner, a biennial state budget for 2020 and 2021.”
But citing the rise in coronavirus cases and the uncertainty surrounding the economy, lawmakers from Netanyahu’s bloc within the government have in recent days been touting a one-year budget that deals with only the next four months. This, they asserted, would allow short-term measures to be put in place without limiting future options.
The push for a one-year budget, however, has led to the suggestion by some that Netanyahu is looking for a way to end his partnership with Gantz’s Blue and White party, prompting another national election that is expected to greatly benefit him.
The coalition deal agreed on by the parties stipulates that if the Knesset is dissolved and elections are called between November 2020 and November 2021 — after a six-month “emergency period” ends but before Gantz becomes prime minister as part of the power-sharing deal — Gantz would automatically become the transitional prime minister instead of Netanyahu.
The clause is meant to serve as a deterrent against Likud ending the partnership before Gantz gets a chance to be premier.
However, if the government were to fall because it failed to pass a budget, no such transition of power would take place. Passing a one-year budget until the end of 2020 would give Netanyahu a possible way to force new elections in 2021 without having to give up the position of prime minister. A two-year budget would prevent that option until 2022.
Finance Minister Israel Katz on Wednesday denied that the move was a pretext for early elections.
“All senior treasury officials, including the head of the budget department, the accountant general and the director-general, wrote an opinion today supporting a one-year budget for economic reasons,” Katz told Channel 12 news.
He said that a budget for just 2020 would be able to include measures that “will allow the economy and workers to reintegrate” following the shutdown of the economy due to the coronavirus.
“By contrast,” Katz warned, “a two-year budget including 2021 will require more aggressive measures.”
He added: “I am convinced that there is no intention of using the budget for elections.”
But Gantz is reportedly unconvinced that the push by Netanyahu and his allies is entirely non-political.
Earlier in the week, a senior Likud source was quoted by Channel 12 as saying that “the marriage between us and Blue and White will end at the Rabbinate [with a divorce] much faster than everyone thinks… Netanyahu is trying to find the right timing and pretext to call elections.”
According to recent opinion polls, Likud would easily win a potential Knesset election that would be the fourth since April 2019, with support for Gantz crumbling since he reneged on his core campaign promise and joined Netanyahu’s government.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.