Israel is on a high-speed train to new elections — the fourth in two years — as rumblings during the past few weeks over a possible government collapse manifested in a verbal threat by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.
“There is no doubt that we are on our way to elections,” he said at a welcoming ceremony for a flight from the United Arab Emirates.
He laid the blame squarely on his coalition partner, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party.
“If they start cooperating instead of acting like a government within a government, we can continue working together. If not, I think everyone would understand that it would unfortunately lead to elections,” he said. “I would prefer that we unite and deal with bringing peace and vaccines and helping the economy.”
Gantz, who is serving as defense minister, and his party joined the coalition under a power-sharing arrangement which would see him take over as prime minister in the fall of 2021.
Blue and White immediately fired back at Netanyahu.
“It is Netanyahu who is breaking agreements, preventing appointments and not enabling the passing of the budget for two months for political reasons,” the party said. “That is why every poll shows the public blames Netanyahu for the elections that are expected by a wide margin.
“They know the truth. If he did not have a trial, there would be a budget,” the party said referring to Netanyahu’s indictment on corruption charges. His trial has been delayed until February.
At the heart of the crisis is the state budget. Finance Minister Israel Katz, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said his office intended to pass the 2021 state budget — but only in February. Gantz wants the budget passed in December.
The government hasn’t even passed a budget for 2020 yet — in violation of national law. Just this week Israel’s High Court of Justice said it wants to know why and in a ruling this week, the court gave the government 21 days to explain itself.
“How can this be justified from the perspective of the Knesset? Transferring this budget is one of the most important and basic functions of the Knesset,” Justice Neal Hendel said.
The wrangling between Netanyahu and Gantz centered on whether they should pass a one- or two-year budget. Blue and White believe that a one-year budget would cast doubt on Gantz’s chances of assuming the premiere position in a year.
If the government is dissolved — which seems imminent considering its inability to reach basic agreements — the next election would be in March, making it exactly four elections in two years.
The question is how the government will disperse. Under the coalition agreement, if Blue and White votes to overthrow the government, Netanyahu remains prime minister in a caretaker government, but if Likud initiates the election, Gantz becomes the caretaker prime minister.
Opposition lawmakers have little faith in Gantz.
“Benny Gantz will once again find a reason to give in to Netanyahu. All the statements and interviews in the media are all a smokescreen, including the committee he is going to appoint, Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman said.
Later the Likud party issued a statement clarifying that Netanyahu does not personally want elections just that they may be inevitable.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu believes that there is no reason to go to elections, but said that if Blue and White continues to have a government within a government, they will drag Israel to elections,” the party said.
Gantz this week called for an inquiry to investigate the role of the Prime Minister’s Office and other high-ranking officials in an alleged graft scheme dating back to 2009 in which Israeli officials are accused of getting received kickbacks in the purchase of naval vessels.