Ultra-Orthodox parties claim Netanyahu, Gantz back compromise to avert elections

Likud minister says ‘there will be no elections in 2020’; but vote on budget delay bill pushed off amid ongoing disagreements

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (right) and then-health minister Yaakov Litzman (left) attend a conference in Lod on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (right) and then-health minister Yaakov Litzman (left) attend a conference in Lod on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The ultra-Orthodox coalition parties said Sunday they had reached a compromise deal regarding the state budget, supported by both the Likud and Blue and White parties, which could defuse the immediate threat of the government’s dissolution and new elections.

The parties of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz didn’t immediately confirm the claim, although reports said the parties were set to resume negotiations Sunday after a week of no talks.

However, Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis of Netanyahu’s Likud party told the Ynet news site Sunday afternoon that progress was being made, adding: “There will be no elections in 2020.”

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

The heart of the dispute is whether the sides should pass a budget that includes 2021, as stipulated in the coalition agreement and backed by Gantz, or a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, as Likud has insisted due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

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.

Screen capture from video of 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)

The United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas parties said they have agreed to support the passage of MK Zvi Hauser’s law delaying the budget deadline by 100 days in exchange for approving an extra NIS 400 million ($117 million) for ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, Hebrew-language media reported.

The reports said the postponement law would include a clause mandating a 2.5% increase in funds as part of the 2020 budget, part of which will go toward ultra-Orthodox seminaries.

UTJ sources were quoted by the Walla website as saying the plan is supported by both Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White.

Hauser, a lawmaker from the Derech Eretz party who has suggested the budget deadline delay as a temporary solution to the coalition crisis, told Radio 103FM on Sunday that he was optimistic that Likud and Blue and White would resolve their differences before Monday night.

But a vote at the Finance Committee on Hauser’s bill originally set for Sunday afternoon was delayed to 9 p.m., after the two ruling parties failed to reach agreements.

Separately, reports on Sunday morning, citing Likud sources and members of the Yamina and Derech Eretz parties, all ruled out the option that a new, narrow right-wing government could be formed, should the coalition fall, as an alternative to elections.

For the second time in three weeks, the cabinet is not meeting for its regular Sunday meeting, underlining the tug of war between Likud and Blue and White.

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

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to local leaders from southern Israel, August 19, 2020 (Oded Karni/GPO)

Gantz signaled Saturday night that he could back the 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 corruption trial.

Gantz added: “Netanyahu needs to ask himself, ‘what did I do as prime minister so there will not 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 expected over 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.

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. Hendel reiterated his objection to that possibility on Sunday morning.

With the passage of the budget seen as impossible in the remaining time, 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/Flash90)

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 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. On Sunday, Rivlin said he had continued his round of talks to include Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, a member of the opposition.

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