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PM: We are moving toward stability, but some want chaos

With budget approval on the line, Bennett urges coalition unity, restraint

Government works to hold ranks as opposition hunts for possible deserters; failure to pass budget would bring down government, but Bennett insists it will pass

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 24, 2021. (Yoav Dudkevitch/Flash90
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 24, 2021. (Yoav Dudkevitch/Flash90

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged his fragile coalition to hold together Wednesday as an extended Knesset session to approve the state budget continued, with lawmakers maneuvering over the financial plan, which will decide the fate of the government. The coalition can muster at best 61 votes in the 120-seat Knesset, but Bennett said Wednesday he was certain the budget will pass.

It is the first time that a government has presented a state budget for final approval in parliament since 2018, due to a prolonged political deadlock that saw successive governments fall before they could bring a plan to the Knesset.

Failure to pass the proposed budget by a November 14 deadline would bring down the government and trigger fresh elections, which would be Israel’s fifth in three years. The coalition is aiming to get the law through by Friday, November 5.

“Passing the budget means securing stability for the country… a growing and prospering economy,” Bennett told ministers at the opening of a cabinet meeting, according to a statement from his office.

Repeating calls he has made over the past few weeks for unity at least until the budget is passed, Bennett urged all ministers and lawmakers in their parties that “this is the peak time for restraint, in statements and in tweets. If something doesn’t need to be said, don’t say it. We don’t need to rock the boat in these sensitive days to gain another point.”

The diverse composition of the government led by Bennett — made up of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties plus an Islamist faction — is complicating the effort to pass a budget, with the opposition of a single lawmaker theoretically able to bring down the wafer-thin coalition.

“We are moving the country toward stability, but there are those who are pulling it into a mess, chaos, more elections and dysfunction,” Bennett said, referring to opposition efforts to torpedo the budget by persuading coalition lawmakers to vote against it.

“We have exhausting days and all-nighters ahead of us in the Knesset, but the budget will pass,” Bennett declared.

Ushers distribute the plan state budgets on the tables of MKs during a plenum session and a vote on the state budget at the assembly hall in the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem on November 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Tuesday, faction heads spoke with their lawmakers and, in particular, those who are wavering, to make sure the government has the votes it needs to pass the package.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, are trying to find deserters, focusing on the right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties. A key selling point, according to the Kan public broadcaster, has been warning lawmakers in those parties that this may be the last chance to prevent Foreign Minister Yair Lapid from becoming prime minister under the rotation deal he has with Bennett.

One of those who admitted he has been singled out for persuasion is Yamina MK Yomtob Kalfon, who nonetheless assured Channel 12 on Tuesday that he would vote to approve the budget. “They’re approaching me for ideological reasons. It’s no secret,” Kalfon said of opposition lawmakers.

Rebel lawmaker Amichai Chikli, also a member of Bennett’s Yamina party, said Saturday that he would not vote for the budget. Chikli also voted against the establishment of the coalition in June. Without his vote, the coalition numbers 61 in the 120-member parliament.

Right-wing lawmakers in the coalition have been targeted because they are ideologically closer to the opposition, which is led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, and have had disagreements with their left-wing and Arab colleagues.

A lawmaker addresses the Knesset plenum during a session to vote on approving the state budget, November 2, 2021. (Noam Moshkavitz/GPO)

MK Mansour Abbas, the leader of Ra’am, an Arab party that is in the government, has continued to push a proposal that NIS 100 million allocated to his party under coalition financing be instead directed toward the benefit of the ultra-Orthodox communities, Kan reported.

Abbas spoke with Lapid about the idea and presented him with a plan for transferring the cash. Lapid reportedly did not rule out the idea and asked Abbas to discuss the matter with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman after the budget is approved. Transferring such a large sum is understood to require cooperation from ministers and other officials, some of whom may not be eager to do favors for the ultra-Orthodox community and its representing parties, which are in the parliamentary opposition, the report said.

Kan first reported on Abbas’s proposal Monday, saying that that the Ra’am leader explained his motive as being a natural alliance between the Arab Israeli and ultra-Orthodox communities, both minorities.

Speaking to the station on Tuesday, Abbas said he had been moved by an impassioned speech United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni recently gave in the Knesset plenum when he spoke of the hardships in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Knesset proceedings on the budget will continue throughout Wednesday with speeches by lawmakers, each of whom is granted 30 minutes to address parliament.

MK Mansour Abbas, leader of the Ra’am party in the Knesset, November 2, 2021. (Noam Moshkavitz/GPO)

At 6 p.m. Bennett is scheduled to open remarks from the government. He will be followed by Lapid and Liberman, opposition leader Netanyahu of the Likud party, and Knesset Finance Committee chair Alex Kushnir.

The actual vote on the budget will be divided into three: first a vote on the budget for 2021, then a vote on the Arrangements Bill, which contains the details of how the financial plan will be put into practice, and after that the budget for 2022.

The final votes on the budget are expected to be held early Friday morning. The prolonged voting process is due to hundreds of preliminary votes on specific objections lawmakers can raise on the budget and the Arrangements Bill.

The last time an Israeli government managed to pass a budget was in March 2018. Failure to approve the budget was what brought down the previous government late last year.

The budget bill for 2021 passed its first reading in September by a 59-54 vote, with the 2022 budget passing 59-53.

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