Photo: Flash90

Israeli elections almost inevitable

Israel’s so-called National Unity Government remains “unified” in name only, as an impasses between coalition partners, the Likud and the Blue and White parties, has once again plunged the country into political chaos.

Just after midnight last night, the Knesset rejected a bill that proposed postponements of the deadlines to pass the 2020 state budget until December 31 and the budget for 2021 to 5 January.

The narrow 49 in favor, 47 against vote means that the 23rd Knesset is automatically set to dissolve at midnight tonight – barring any eleventh hour comprises between government leaders. As such, Israelis will again head to the polls for the 4th national election in just 2 years, most likely on 23 March 2021.

The Likud and Blue and White have furiously accused the other for responsibility for the stalemate.

Israeli Prime Minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu denounced his coalition partner Benny Gantz, the Blue and White Chairman who currently serves as Alternate Premier and Defense Minister. “At this time we should have been uniting forces to prevent these unnecessary elections,” said Netanyahu from the Knesset plenum, insisting, “At the last moment Benny Gantz backed out of the agreements we had.” The Likud Party also issued a statement that, “Due to an internal fight in Blue and White, Gantz has retracted all the agreements reached in negotiations between Blue and White and Likud,” adding, “It’s unfortunate that Gantz has decided to drag the country to unnecessary elections at the height of the coronavirus crisis.”

Just hours ahead of the Knesset vote, Gantz briefed his party on current state of negotiations with Likud during a Zoom faction meeting. According to a statement TV7 received from Blue & White, Minister Gantz informed party members that he spoke with the Prime Minister and outlined five key conditions that would “enable the government to persist,” as follows: Guaranteed passing of 2020-2021 state budget, Confirmation of Knesset rules of procedure, Green light on all stalled appointments, Minister of Justice remains in office, no changes detrimental to rule of law, and Closing of any potential loopholes meant to avoid follow-through on rotational agreement.

“If they want to, they’ll take it. If they don’t, there will be elections,” said Minister Gantz, according to the statement.

Under terms of the coalition deal signed by Likud with Blue and White – failure to approve the budget is the sole condition which would permit Netanyahu to refuse relinquishing the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. The Prime Minister’s party is widely perceived as delaying budget passage for months as a means to force the renegotiation of the coalition pact.

Netanyahu claimed last night that Gantz had agreed to a series his own demands, before reversing course due to “internal pressure” from his faction. Netanyahu went on to accuse Blue and White’s Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and “the left” of trying to “trample our democracy.”

Netanyahu’s list reportedly involves reconsideration of the current state prosecutor candidate, amendment of the selection process of Supreme Court Justices and limitation on Nissenkorn’s authority. All of these motions would afford Netanyahu greater influence over the same agencies which are prosecuting him on criminal charges.

Gantz reacted to the charges with a lengthy post on his Facebook page, reading: “Over these past days, dozens of rumors, and blatant lies have been circulating. We’ve been accused of settling, compromising, selling out our democracy, and groveling. This is all patently false. Just as I promised, it was either a budget, a functioning government, and protection of the rule of law and Justice Ministry, or elections. Blue and White entered the government, while paying a heavy political price, to serve the best interests of the country, given the needs and scale of the moment. Unfortunately, we found no partner on the other end. We went into it united by our shared values, and it appears we will be heading into elections guided by those same values – without a governing partner, and without having arrived at agreement on what’s best for the nation. I regret that the Prime Minister is preoccupied with his trial and not the public interest, and is prepared to drag the entire country into a period of uncertainty, instead of ensuring economic stability and a rehabilitation of the economy. If Likud won’t meet our demands, we will head to elections with our head held high, having put Israel before everything else, and let the voters decide. I wasn’t afraid to do the right thing several months ago, and I’m not afraid to do the right thing now, because Israel is what matters most to me. We will either protect the rule of law, pass a budget and ensure a functioning government – or let the public call it in elections.”

Meanwhile, the Blue and White party announced that Defense Minister Gantz would be in self-isolation until Saturday after coming into contact with his party Member of Knesset (MK) Hila Shay Vazan, who has tested positive for COVID-19. Gantz underwent coronavirus testing yesterday and will undergo another test before ending his quarantine period. Other faction MK’s David Bitan is critically ill with the disease, and Eitan Ginzburg is also in quarantine due to contact with Shay Vazan.

Current surveys show that if Israeli elections were today, the Likud would garner just 28 seats reflecting an 8 seat drop from the nation’s last vote in March. The Blue and White, which has suffered major defections, would win a lowly 5, down from 33. The “New Hope” faction recently founded by Netanyahu rival, former Likud Minister Gideon Sa’ar, is predicted to pick up between 19 or 20 mandates.

Netanyahu remained undaunted by the recent polls. “We don’t want elections. That’s why we were willing to vote in the Knesset to avoid it,” he insisted, vowing, “But if elections are imposed upon us, we will win.”