President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday issued a public rebuke to Israeli politicians, saying they were dragging the country behind them like a “rag doll,” amid reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to trigger new elections after weeks of coalition infighting.
“I would like to address all members of the government. I, like the other citizens of the country, follow with great concern the developments in the Knesset, which are repeatedly shaking the already fragile partnership between all the coalition factions,” Rivlin tweeted.
“As a citizen and on behalf of us all, I say: Get a grip! Stop the talk of early elections, of that terrible option at this time, and save yourselves from it,” he said. “The State of Israel is not a rag doll that you drag around as you squabble,” Rivlin added.
“Our citizens, all of us, need you focused, clear, working to resolve the unprecedented crisis in which the State of Israel and all of humanity have found themselves. It is up to you to do it.”
The rare public scolding came hours after two senior Likud MKs threatened new elections and after a report the previous evening that Netanyahu had decided against passing a state budget by a late-August deadline, in a gambit that would trigger a national vote 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. Though Gantz had 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 in January witnesses will begin testifying in his criminal trial, 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.”
The report said that Netanyahu — while aware of the risks of another election, which would come as Israel is mired in the coronavirus pandemic and a major economic crisis — has decided it is better than the alternatives, and 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.
The Haaretz report came as the coalition was again thrust into crisis, after the Blue and White party voted in favor of a bill barring 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.
On Thursday morning the coalition whip, Likud’s Miki Zohar, said that unless government members fell into line with their votes, the country would head to the polls.
“The political ties between us and Blue and White will not be able to continue unless there is a change,” Zohar tweeted. “The situation that has arisen leads to the instability of the government, which causes the members of the coalition to do whatever they please without coalition discipline.”
“It’s time to make a decision: Pass a budget with a stable government and a functioning coalition or go to the polls,” Zohar wrote.
Higher Education Minister Ze’ev Elkin likewise told the Kan public broadcaster that there would be new elections if coalition members continued to vote against government policy. “If their conduct is like it was yesterday [with Blue and White voting to outlaw conversion therapy] then there will be no other option,” Elkin said. “When members of the government vote against the government’s position, it cannot continue.”
In light of the latest flare-up 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 was truly gunning for new elections and 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.