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As Israel’s Budget Deadline Nears, Gantz May Have to Launch an Ultimatum

At stake is whether Netanyahu will be able to call an early election when he wants, scuttling the unity government he formed with the Kahol Lavan chief

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and alternate PM Benny Gantz during a swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Jerusalemת  May 17, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and alternate PM Benny Gantz during a swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Jerusalemת May 17, 2020.Credit: ADINA VALMAN / KNESSET SPOKESPER
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

The end of the U.S. election heralds the moment Benny Gantz must hate the most: decision time. For a month, the Kahol Lavan chief has been threatening to bring down the unity government if a national budget for 2021 isn’t passed. It’s clear now that a budget won’t be passed and Gantz must make a decision.

Israel’s politicians were waiting for the result of the U.S. presidential election. Had Donald Trump been reelected, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have been keen to call a snap election: The polls show that he has no challengers, and his campaign could have flaunted photos of him hugging the president who once again trounced the leftists.

Meanwhile, Kahol Lavan’s Gabi Ashkenazi, the foreign minister, made some threats in mid-October, saying that if Netanyahu failed to move forward on the budget by the end of the month, this would prove that the prime minister didn’t want a partnership. In any case, it’s clear there won’t be a budget. Netanyahu didn’t blink, and he doesn’t intend to approve a budget for 2021 before the end of the year.

The failure of the Ashkenazi ultimatum set off a world war in Kahol Lavan. Its 15 legislators are more divided than the vote count in Georgia. Members of a small faction led by Chili Tropper and Omer Yankelevich still believe – bizarrely enough – that if they keep a low profile, stop bickering and start cooperating, they’ll sail into the planned rotation of the premiership simply because Netanyahu won’t want to crown right-winger Naftali Bennett king.

A different faction, headed by Kahol Lavan members outside the cabinet such as Asaf Zamir and Ram Shefa, would rather dissolve the coalition now. In the middle are the party’s cabinet ministers; some want to remain the thorn in Likud’s side, others are waiting to see what happens.

The unknown variable is Netanyahu. What does the prime minister want? How does he interpret the developments in the United States? No one knows for sure. For now, he’s letting Kahol Lavan’s legislators trip over their own feet.

The following are the options for the near term:

1. The Knesset passes a law dissolving itself. The amendments to the Basic Laws on the government and on the Knesset that were passed in May to allow for the rotation were written so as to block Netanyahu from dissolving the Knesset via a law. If he does this, he will in effect hand over the premiership to Gantz. Gantz, on the other hand, can simply vote for the law dissolving the Knesset.

On Wednesday, opposition leader Yair Lapid threatened to submit a motion for dissolution, but it was postponed due to the U.S. elections. Kahol Lavan is considering supporting it in the preliminary vote in order to get Netanyahu moving on the budget.

There are two problem with this; the first is that Kahol Lavan will look foolish if it votes for the bill and then gives in. The party’s MKs also fear that it would serve Netanyahu and be seen as if they were pushing for an early election.

The second, more important, problem is that there might not be a majority within the party. For the past few weeks, Netanyahu has been trying to get the four lawmakers of the United Arab List – one component of the Joint List – to abstain on votes over bills that are important to him. One would think the United Arab List’s support wouldn’t be needed to dissolve the Knesset, but political maneuvering could shuffle the cards in unforeseen ways.

2. Progress on bills prohibiting criminal defendants from being asked to form a government. Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn still dreams of this, and Gantz would have to choose a stance.

3. A compromise that would extend the budget deadline into the middle of next year. Gantz is generally open to compromise, but his partners in Kahol Lavan would probably balk at this.

4. The 2021 budget won’t be passed and the Knesset will dissolve automatically in December. Kahol Lavan believes this is the most likely scenario, mainly because it allows inertia to decide rather than Gantz. In that event, Kahol Lavan officials believe that voters will blame the side that forced an early election by failing to pass the budget.

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