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‘This is going nowhere’: Gantz, Netanyahu shout at each other at cabinet meeting

In latest manifestation of coalition crisis, debate over pandemic response said to devolve into recriminations; Likud minister says he expects Knesset to be dissolved in December

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly got into a shouting match with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi during a coronavirus cabinet meeting Monday night, as friction within the coalition was widely expected to lead to the fall of the government by next month.

Tensions have been growing for months between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White over the failure to pass the state budget and to make a series of senior appointments, including for police chief, attorney general and Justice Ministry director-general.

Netanyahu and Gantz clashed earlier Monday as well over an inquiry Gantz announced Sunday into the so-called submarine affair. Gantz also said Israelis should be concerned about the leaking of news that Netanyahu flew Sunday to meet with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, implying that the story was published for Netanyahu’s partisan political purposes. Those incidents further shook up the already rickety unity coalition and signaled that the long-expected fall of the government was nearer than ever.

The distrust was apparent during Monday’s marathon eight-hour meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, a ministerial body that makes decisions regarding the pandemic. At one point, Gantz and Ashkenazi shouted at Netanyahu that he was trying to change the focus of the meeting just because his opinion wasn’t being accepted.

The body eventually decided early Tuesday to approve Education Minister Yoav Gallant’s plan to reopen most schools across the country. High schoolers in areas designated green and yellow will go back to school on Sunday, while middle schools will reopen the following Sunday, December 6. Schools in red zones, those with high morbidity rates, will remain closed.

But earlier, Netanyahu expressed reservations about that plan and tried to delay its approval, preferring to focus on ways to lower the virus’s basic reproduction number, or R0 — the average number of people each COVID-19 patient infects — which is currently above 1, meaning the number of active cases is on the rise, risking a renewed outbreak.

“The public is looking at us and saying, ‘Come on, get the disease under control.’ Nobody is making a suggestion on how to lower the R0. If I need to be the bad guy, I will,” Netanyahu was quoted by Hebrew-language media as telling ministers. “I want to see how we lower the R0 before we decide on [reopening] education and malls. It isn’t comfortable from a publicity point of view, but it’s our duty even if it takes another day.”

Education Minister Yoav Gallant visits schoolchildren on the first day of the school year in Mevo Horon, September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

At that point, Ashkenazi reportedly interjected: “There’s a decision you don’t agree with so you take it off the agenda? If we aren’t voting, why have we convened?”

Netanyahu retorted: “If need be, we will postpone the vote until tomorrow or the day after it. It’s very tough, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Gantz then joined the heated debate: “Why did we hold a meeting if there are no decisions? We sat for three hours and heard briefings, and now it’s being taken off [the agenda]. This is going nowhere. It’s a shame we didn’t make preparations ahead of time. These discussions can’t go on like this. I’m sorry to say this.”

That is when the shouting reportedly began. Netanyahu said: “If we don’t lower the R0 we’ll reach a third lockdown in a short time. I don’t want to make a political decision.”

Gantz replied: “It isn’t a political decision, it is the future of our children. The education minister suggested a balanced, responsible plan, and we aren’t even voting on it? So why did we convene? What have we been talking about for three hours?”

After Netanyahu heard the shouting match had been leaked to the press, he reportedly quipped: “I haven’t screamed at you yet. If I scream, you will know.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, chairs an emergency meeting of senior ministers to decide on measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, July 16, 2020. (Chaim Tzach/GPO)

According to the coalition deal, Netanyahu is to serve as prime minister until November 17, 2021, at which point Gantz will succeed him. However, if the government falls due to failure to pass the budget, Netanyahu retains the premiership until the next election. He has been accused of using the passage of the budget as leverage, while charging that Gantz has been violating the coalition agreement himself.

As several ultimatums by Gantz on passing the budget have been ignored, both parties have indicated that they don’t believe the partnership will last much longer. The current deadline for passing the 2020 state budget is December 23, having  been pushed off from the original August 25 deadline. Gantz is demanding that the 2020 budget be approved along with next year’s, which must by law be passed by March.

On Tuesday, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch (Likud) told Channel 12: “If you’re asking me, we will dissolve the Knesset in December. Until now I have said that in all other areas the government isn’t functioning but the coronavirus cabinet is, but yesterday there were disagreements and the whole thing was drawn out.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has vowed to once more advance a bill to dissolve the Knesset, vowing not to back down at the last minute as it has previously done.

The Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday that Blue and White was considering bringing forward a similar motion itself, since it would want to lead the move and get credit for it rather than let Yesh Atid have it. The report said Gantz hadn’t made a final decision on the matter.

Critics believe Netanyahu has been engineering the ongoing dispute with Blue and White over the budget and the other issues, as he wants to hold elections before the premiership rotates to Gantz. Should elections be called, they would be the fourth within two years.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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