Two hours before a deadline on Israel's state budget that could have seen the Knesset dissolve, the Israeli parliament approved legislation that would extend it by 120 days, avoiding a fourth election cycle in less than two years.
Ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said their parties would back it. Sixty-seven Knesset members voted in favor of the bill, and 37 opposed.
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If the bill, proposed by lawmaker Zvi Hauser, had not passed by midnight, the Knesset would have automatically dissolved.
Alongside setting the date for budget approval as December 23, the bill approves adding another 11 billion shekels to Israel's 2020 budget. Netanyahu was forced to withdraw his demand for a one-year budget, and in exchange, the bill approves a budgetary increase for the new school year and urgent health and welfare matters. The updated budget stands at about 411 billion shekels.
In a video statement released to the media, Netanyahu accused Kahol Lavan of "adding and changing all sorts of things" in the agreement after the prime minister expressed his support of it.
"And I still think that it's irresponsible to go to elections when we have no approved budgetary framework," he said. "We are on the eve of the first day of school, which is why I instructed Likud members to vote to delay the budget. I will keep on doing the right thing, to avoid unnecessary elections when there is no need, and I hope that others will behave likewise," Netanyahu said.
Speaking shortly after Netanyahu, Gantz warned that political tensions might lead to "bloodshed" in the case of another election.
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“Anyone who threatens [to go to] election isn’t threatening me, but the Israeli public... At such a time, I won’t let anyone threaten Israeli citizens with an election,” he said.
“I went into this government to take care of the present and future of Israeli citizens. But I will never let anyone crush democracy. I won’t let anyone appoint their puppets to public office," he added, in reference to Likud's initiative to establish a committee to examine the appointment of senior officials.
"Under my watch, as defense minister, I’ll keep safeguarding the country’s security… and ensure no one raises their hand against the rule of law,” Gantz said.
A source in Gantz’s party told Haaretz they “prevented the politicization of the next state prosecutor,” effectively barring Likud from deciding on the appointment. These appointments are especially charged considering that Netanyahu is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and the next phase of said trial will begin in January.
Over the past few days, sources in both parties assessed that the chances that the rotation agreement, which would see Gantz replacing Netanyahu as prime minister, actually being fulfilled are not particularly high, and that the next elections are just a matter of time.
Earlier Monday evening, coalition whip Miki Zohar told Channel 13 News that he “clearly recommends that Netanyahu back to the bill, even though it would lead to a wobbly government in the coming months until its demise, sooner or later.” Speaking to Channel 12 News, Zohar added that a decision by the prime minister against the bill “would make a lot of sense.”
Before both leader's statements, Netanyahu's Likud and Gantz's Kahol Lavan parties accused each other of reneging on the proposed compromise.
A senior Likud official was quoted in a Monday statement accusing Gantz's party of "running away" from the compromise to which they had agreed, adding Kahol Lavan "is dragging the country to an election under false claims."
The official said Kahol Lavan is refusing to establish the appointments committee, and accused them of trying to define the budget as a biannual one. "While Gantz's Kahol Lavan has agreed to a compromise," the official said, "Gabi Ashkenazi's Kahol Lavan is dragging the country to an election," hinting at divisions within the party.
Kahol Lavan was quick to respond. "Netanyahu has only a few hours to fulfil his promise… to prevent an election," the party said. Netanyahu, the statement added, has just little time left to show whether he is committed to a unity government or whether his personal and legal considerations will come first."
"Any last minute attempts by Likud concerning [the appointment] of a state prosecutor or attorney general will be met with a stone wall," the party said.
The proposed bill was approved by the Knesset Finance Committee earlier on Monday, setting the stage for the proposal to be put before the Knesset for a second and then final vote.
Hauser’s proposal originally placed a 100-day freeze on appointments that must be approved by the cabinet, such as the state prosecutor. During that time, a committee would be formed to discuss how the appointments will be decided upon, and the government could focus on the coronavirus crisis and preparing for security challenges along the Gaza border and in the north.
The committee decided to change the 100-day extension originally proposed to a 120-day one, which would move the deadline to December 23.
A Knesset Finance Committee discussion on the proposal was suspended on Sunday to allow Likud and Kahol Lavan to reach an understanding on the issue. The committee approved the proposal after Netanyahu said later Sunday that he was accepting the compromise to extend the deadline.