Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party announced Tuesday that they would not take part in Wednesday's preliminary vote on a bill that would ban a criminal defendant from forming a government.
The bill, brought forward by Kahol Lavan's former political allies Yesh Atid, is aimed at preventing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from running for office in the next election. Netanyahu currently stands trial for suspected bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
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"Our basic stance on the matter has not changed and will not change," Gantz's party wrote in a statement, "however, at this time, this [bill] is only an attempt to shake the stability of the entire political system."
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid-Telem faction broke from Kahol Lavan in March after Gantz joined Netanyahu’s government, will present the bill to the Knesset on Wednesday. Kahol Lavan promoted passing such a bill during its three election campaigns over the past year and a half.
Coalition whip Miki Zohar of Likud made a clear ultimatum on Monday – If Kahol Lavan backs the bill barring a criminal defendant from serving as prime minister, the government would dissolve and a fourth election in under two years would be called.
This is the third time within the past two months that Kahol Lavan is divided between its moral stance and a pragmatic move that is meant to keep its members in the government and prevent a fourth election.
"In the midst of one of the most urgent crises in Israel's history, we have chosen to do everything we could to avoid an election that would bring financial ruin to the economy and tear Israeli society to shreds," Kahol Lavan said. "The time has come to approve a long-term budget, that will give the public the financial security that it needs to breathe. Anyone who acts differently will be judged harshly by history as someone who is working for himself and not the Israeli people."
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If a budget is not approved by August 24, 100 days after the current government took office, the Knesset will dissolve and Israel will head to another election.
The main dispute blocking the passing of a 2020 budget is the demand by Gantz to pass a two-year document, as stipulated in his party’s coalition agreement with Netanyahu’s Likud.
In contrast, Netanyahu is determined to pass a one-year budget, which would leave him the option of calling an election next June if the next budget, for 2021, isn’t passed in the spring, before Gantz is supposed to take over as prime minister according to the coalition agreement. In such a situation, according to the agreement, Netanyahu would remain as prime minister in a caretaker government.
Likud and Kahol Lavan said on Sunday that they would back a bill for a 100-day extension that was proposed by lawmaker Zvi Hauser. However, a Likud source later said the party would vote in favor in a preliminary vote and a first vote, but wouldn't commit to backing the bill in the final two votes before it becomes law.
Given Miki Zohar's ultimatum, Kahol Lavan predicts that Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin will push to present Lapid’s bill before Hauser’s proposal to postpone the deadline for approving the state budget by 100 days. That would allow Netanyahu’s party to monitor how Kahol Lavan members vote on the bill preventing a criminal defendant from forming a governing coalition and respond accordingly.
If Kahol Lavan decides to block Netanyahu from running for office in the next election, then Likud would foil the vote on delaying the budget deadline, a move that would lead to the dissolution of the Knesset in two weeks.
But while Netanyahu's party has presented an ultimatum, Kahol Lavan is scrambling to rationalize Gantz's move during Monday's faction meeting. Gantz presented an outline for resolving Israel's political crisis, which would take a fourth election off the table.
According to Gantz’s plan, Netanyahu would have to join forces with Kahol Lavan and pass a fast-tracked bill within 24-hours to delay the deadline for the state budget. This would allow the sides three months to sort out their disputes and avoid an election. Gantz did not mention what would happen if Netanyahu does not back his initiative. "This requires a positive, true and honest cooperation without tricks or political stunts," Gantz said when he made the proposal.
Netanyahu, on his part, was less enthusiastic about Gantz’s proposal, announcing shortly after that he rejects the move and demands to immediately approve the one-year budget, in contrast to the coalition agreement he signed with Gantz.