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Israeli Gov’t Steps Off Election Ledge – For Now
Protesters stand holding signs reading in Hebrew (red), "This stage must not be left empty" and another depicting Benny Gantz, Israel's alternate prime minister and defense minister, as Waldo from the children's puzzle book series with text in Hebrew reading, "The world of culture asks where's Benny?" during a demonstration near Gantz's house in the Israeli city of Rosh Haayin on August 9, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli Gov’t Steps Off Election Ledge – For Now

Netanyahu and Gantz agree to postpone budget deadline, but future still murky

The Israeli political system, already accustomed to hectic days after an 18-month stretch of never-ending elections, witnessed one of its more bizarre 24-hour cycles Sunday. After starting the day off with a canceled government meeting, a rarely seen event that occurred after the Likud and Blue and White parties failed to even agree on the meeting’s agenda, by evening the two warring factions announced they had reached an understanding that would enable the country to avoid another general election.

Still, by Monday evening, the consensus around the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, was that early elections in the coming months are a question of when, rather than if.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared Sunday night that they would both support a motion postponing by several weeks the looming budget deadline, set to expire in 14 days. If the deadline is reached and no budget is passed, the government will be automatically dissolved and elections will be held. If a budget is voted through parliament, or the deadline is delayed, the sputtering government will, somehow, live to see another day.

Yet to pass the agreed-upon deadline postponement, a specific bill must be voted on four separate times, and while Netanyahu has verbally promised to support this procedure, seldom few in Gantz’s party take his word for it. On Monday, Gantz himself demanded that Netanyahu commit to passing the postponement bill in its entirety in a fast-tracked 24-hour window, “with no tricks or shticks.” Netanyahu declined.

The consensus in the political arena is that the prime minister is still looking for an out before resigning and handing the reigns over to Gantz in November of next year, as he vowed to do in the coalition pact signed in May.

The budget talks themselves stalled after Netanyahu attempted to back out of his agreement to pass a biennial budget, which would afford the government some long-term stability and essentially guarantee Gantz get his turn as prime minister in 14 months.

“Netanyahu’s goal isn’t elections,” explains Itzik Elrov, a strategic and communications adviser who in the past served as a senior adviser to the Labor party and to current Interior Minister and Netanyahu confidant Aryeh Deri. “He wants only one thing, to halt his judicial process. For that, he needs to assemble a majority of right-wing MPs around him, so that he can pass a string of laws that effectively cancel his trial.”

“Elections may help him achieve that. But it’s not the only way.”

He wants only one thing, to halt his judicial process. For that, he needs to assemble a majority of right-wing MPs around him, so that he can pass a string of laws that effectively cancel his trial

In January, the prime minister’s trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust will enter its witness hearing phase.

Elrov sees a different approach Netanyahu may take to attain his goal. “He’s threatening elections all the time because he wants to shake Blue and White’s ‘tree’ to see if anything falls out,” says Elrov. “Blue and White MKs see the polls, they know their chances of making the Knesset again are slim, so Netanyahu is hoping one or two flip sides and he has his right-wing coalition.”

Still, Israelis are hoping against hope that the two sides to the beleaguered “unity coalition” will manage to hammer out a budget deal in the extra days they promise to buy for themselves. A recent study done by the Israeli Democracy Institute shows an overwhelming majority of 72% objects to holding new elections in the coming months.

“That number becomes even larger in [Netanyahu’s] right-wing base, so he’s basically going against his voters’ gut feelings if he opts for elections,” says Prof. Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Yet Herman believes the prime minister is not facing any real and imminent danger. “Elections are just not that big of a threat for him, as opposed to the center-left wing, who has no leaders, no agendas and no parties,” she says.

If the public will eventually believe that Israel was thrown into another election cycle, at the height of a pandemic and a financial crisis, because of Netanyahu’s personal motives, that might change the picture

“Still, there is always the question of the ‘blame game’,” Herman continues. “It remains to be seen if Netanyahu will manage to put the blame for the government’s dissolving on [Gantz] like he’s trying. If the public will eventually believe that Israel was thrown into another election cycle, at the height of a pandemic and a financial crisis, because of Netanyahu’s personal motives, that might change the picture.”

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