Tension was evident between Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening of the Knesset’s new session on April 30
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It’s about time, no? What’s it been, nearly five months since the last election, and over two months since the emergency coronavirus government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz was sworn into office?
New elections in some four months’ time, according to Channel 12 political reporter Amit Segal, is not some science-fiction scenario, but actually a real possibility. And the excuse? The budget.
For the last two months, since people discovered a loophole in the coalition agreement that would enable the unity government to fall and Netanyahu to remain in power rather than handing the reins to Gantz, the question of whether the country should have a one- or two-year budget has been constant background noise.
Gantz wants a two-year budget, as is stipulated in the coalition agreement signed by both sides in April. Netanyahu, once the advocate of two-year budgets, now – citing corona and the need to remain flexible to deal with the pandemic – only wants a budget a year at a time.
Though one might think that the argument is over economic issues – the manner in which both Gantz and Netanyahu have presented it – the real issue is political: The failure to pass a budget is apparently the only way Netanyahu can get out of honoring the rotation agreement he signed and move aside for Gantz in November 2021.
Under the painstakingly crafted coalition agreement – and as a disincentive to manufacturing a coalition crisis to dissolve the government and go to new elections – if the government falls, the alternate prime minister will serve as caretaker leader until elections are held and another government is set up.
Except for one special case: the budget. According to paragraph 30 of the 41-paragraph document: “If there is no agreement on the budget, the issue will be brought for a decision by the prime minister and his alternate. If the budget is not passed on the agreed date, the party that tripped it up or did not support its passing would be deemed to have violated this agreement. In such a case, the prime minister will be replaced in a way such that the party upholding this agreement will serve or will continue to serve as prime minister.”
The paragraph also states that “close to the establishment of the government and no later than 90 days after the government is sworn in, the coalition will ensure an orderly passage of the state budget, including special budgets to deal with the corona crisis.”
In other words, if the budget isn’t passed in about a month’s time, the government falls, elections will be called for November, and Netanyahu – not Gantz – will remain in power until a new government is formed.
“The budget crisis is turning out to be a crisis that threatens the very existence of the government,” Segal wrote on social media on Monday.
The reason, he said, is that both Netanyahu and Gantz are convinced that compromising on this issue would lead to the end of their political careers – nothing less.
“Gantz is certain that a one-year budget means that the government will fall apart in March without his becoming prime minister.
Netanyahu – that a two-year budget will slam close the last window enabling going to new elections,” Segal wrote.
The logic is as follows: If Gantz gives in and agrees to a one-year budget – something that the Treasury favors – that means a budget will need to be passed by August until the end of the year, and then in January negotiations will begin for 2021’s budget.
According to law, this budget will need to be passed by March 31 or the government will fall. Gantz is afraid that Netanyahu will manufacture a crisis to prevent the passing of the budget, whereby if the government then falls, Netanyahu will head the caretaker and transitional governments.
If elections are indeed called, Gantz can probably kiss his political career goodbye, as his party’s popularity has plunged since he decided to join Netanyahu in a coalition. If he does rotate into the Prime Minister’s Office in November 2021, he can try to salvage his political career by proving himself on the job.
The passage of a two-year budget now ensures that there is no other off-ramp available for Netanyahu, and he will have to transfer power to Gantz.
Which is exactly why this is also a do-or-die, no-compromise issue for Netanyahu.
If a one-year budget is passed now, the government could still fall before March 31 over the 2021 budget, whereby he will remain in power up to the next elections and until a new government is established. A two-year budget, however, blocks that option and ensures he will need to hand over the reins of power, as he promised he would do, most likely ending his career.
So while for many, this one- or two-year budget issue is largely arcane, for Netanyahu and Gantz their political survival hinges on it – the reason why it is shaping up now as a major battle.
As for what is good for the country, many sighed a sigh of relief back in April when the unity agreement was signed, arguing that with the pandemic upending everything, with almost a million Israelis out of work, with businesses closing left and right, the last thing the country needed was another expensive and divisive election, whose results would likely – like the three previous elections over an 11-month period – lead to inconclusive results.
But now, as the unity government limps from one disagreement to the next, and as it has proven inept at managing the corona crisis since it was sworn in on May 17, some are asking what would be worse for the country: being led through a crisis of historic proportions by a government that has proven unable to get its act together and has lost the confidence of a good part of the public, or a fourth election within 20 months?
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