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Ashkenazi: PM wants elections for his personal legal reasons

Sunday cabinet meeting canceled as government collapse looms

Coalition partners reportedly optimistic for budget compromise to avert elections, but officials continue to trade barbs ahead of Monday deadline

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet will not meet on Sunday for its weekly meeting, apparently due to a coalition crisis that has brought the government to the brink of collapse if a compromise is not reached on the state budget by Monday night.

It will be the second time in three weeks that the cabinet does not meet, underlining a tug of war between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the Blue and White faction, headed by his rival-cum-partner Benny Gantz.

The sides have until Monday night to either pass a budget or get Knesset approval to extend the deadline by 100 days or the government will automatically fall, heralding new elections, the fourth round in under two years.

The two sides remain optimistic about reaching a deal and averting elections, however, according to multiple Hebrew media reports late Saturday.

The heart of the dispute is whether the sides should pass a budget that includes 2021, as stipulated in the coalition and backed by Gantz, the defense minister, or a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, which Likud has insisted on.

According to reports, Likud has sought a number of changes to the coalition agreement in exchange for backing the 100-day delay, including a say in the appointment of senior justice officials.

Gantz signaled Saturday night that he could back a compromise agreement that would delay the budget deadline and see the parties form a committee to weigh how senior government officials are chosen. The sides would agree to not make appointments for the 100 day period.

“From my perspective, this committee needs to be and can be formed, and [should] weigh the ways in which we make appointments; and in any case we’ll have to reach an agreement on this matter,” Gantz said in an interview with Channel 13 news.

He said if elections are called, it will be because of Netanyahu’s “personal reasons,” referring to the premier’s indictment on graft charges.

Gantz added: “Netanyahu needs to ask himself, ‘what did I do as prime minister so there won’t be elections?’ He didn’t comply with the clause [in the coalition deal] on the budget.”

“We’re ready for solutions. All that needs to happen is to return to the deal. There’s no reason to take us to elections,” Gantz said.

Netanyahu’s Likud is also leaning toward backing the bill delaying the deadline, Channel 12 news reported.

Additionally, Likud and Blue and White have reportedly agreed to focus on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the flu during the winter, as well as with the potential security threats on the northern and southern borders.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Party officials still sniped at each other on Saturday evening, with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi of Blue and White saying, “Netanyahu has 48 hours to pull himself together and prove whether the good of the public is his focus or his personal interests.”

Likud responded, writing on Twitter, “Ashkenazi continues to be a tireless subversive. Up until the last moment, Ashkenazi continues to do all he can to drag Israel to elections.”

With the possibility of new elections looming, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg called on Blue and White on Saturday to ditch Netanyahu and form an alternative government, claiming there was a majority in the Knesset to do so.

“The center-left bloc has a majority [of] 61 in the current Knesset. All that needs to be done is for Blue and White to vote in favor of a constructive no-confidence [vote] on Monday… and there’s a government that will pass a budget and can deal with citizens and not with itself, without elections or racism,” she wrote on Twitter.

Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser during a Knesset vote on a bill to push off a deadline for passing the national budget, August 12, 2020. (Knesset channel)

Despite Zandberg’s assertion, there did not appear to be a majority in the Knesset for the move, as Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and MK Zvi Hauser of the Derech Eretz faction of Blue and White — whose support would be needed — have previously ruled out working with the majority-Arab Joint List party to form a government without Netanyahu.

With the passage of the budget seen as impossible with the time left to do so, the only realistic option is giving final approval to a bill to delay the budget deadline by 100 days.

Such a bill has been approved in its first of three plenum readings, but Likud is making various demands in order to support its final passage.

Blue and White has accused Netanyahu of deliberately attempting to violate the coalition agreement with his sudden demand for a one-year budget in order leave himself a future window to dissolve the government and avoid having to hand over the prime minister post to Gantz in November 2021, as the coalition deal stipulates.

Netanyahu has been reported to be demanding various changes to his party’s coalition agreement with Blue and White to protect his status as his criminal trial moves forward, as well as to assert more power over the justice and law enforcement systems.

He is reportedly demanding greater power over senior appointments, including of top law enforcement officials including the next state prosecutor, in contravention of previous agreements. Ashkenazi said Saturday that Netanyahu was pushing for elections for his “personal and legal reasons,” related to his trial, implying that the prime minister hopes a new, different Knesset might yield a majority of lawmakers willing to back legislation that could thwart the legal proceedings in the three graft cases against him.

Top economists say passing a budget that encompasses both 2020 and 2021 makes the most sense, as there would be little point for a 2020 budget just a few months before the year’s end. Netanyahu says uncertainty due to the pandemic makes it impossible to plan that far ahead.

President Reuven Rivlin has spoken in recent days with coalition party leaders with the goal of preventing another election, the President’s Residence said Thursday.

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