Israel's 35th government looks like a bundle of nerves. Each side tries to pull things its way, and nerves get frayed. The thing could fall apart at any moment, and the country is liable to find itself in a fourth election. Although at the moment Likud and Blue & White are behaving as though they are better off staying together in a unity government than facing an election, no-one can guarantee that it will stay that way.
Several opinion polls show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud winning more than 40 Knesset seats if elections were held now. Furthermore, Blue & White leader and prime minister in waiting Benny Gantz upset Likud members and supporters in his tour of the Ministry of Justice, where he was photographed alongside Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and spoke to ministry staff about upholding the rule of law. No-one in Likud expected Gantz to join Netanyahu's campaign against his accusers and the courts, but they hoped that his declarations about defending the rule of law would be less vocal and campaign-like.
The murky atmosphere in relations between the two sides was expressed by coalition chairman MK Miki Zohar in an interview with Channel 12. "I hope that there won't be an election, that the government will last," Zohar said, "but with the behavior we are seeing at the moment in the ministerial legislation committee, where [Minister of Justice Avi] Nissenkorn vetoes every bill that Likud proposes, it won't last long. If there is no constructive dialogue between us and Blue & White, so that bills cannot be shelved before they are even discussed, that's not democracy. I hope this way of proceeding will change, and fast."
1. "Norwegian law" passed at midnight, in Netanyahu's absence
Zohar is very close to Netanyahu, and what he says and does are certainly coordinated with him. Traditionally, in Likud, the job of coalition chair is given to someone effective and very close to the prime minister.
Zohar said something else as well, namely that the so-called Norwegian law, allowing ministers to resign from the Knesset and to be replaced by the next in line on their party's candidate list (which Blue & White has been desperate to pass) would not be put to a vote because Blue & White refused to reopen the coalition agreement and insert a clause stating that Netanyahu will remain as prime minister with full powers (and not just as alternate prime minister) if the High Court of Justice rules the agreement or the legislation to implement it unconstitutional.
On Monday, Likud was still using the Norwegian law as a threat against Blue & White, but in a meeting with Netanyahu, Gantz said that Likud's commitment to the law was a prior condition for the coalition. If Likud seeks to reopen the coalition agreement later, perhaps Blue & White will also want to change its terms. Likud was hobbled and with gritted teeth passed the Norwegian law after midnight. Netanyahu was absent from the vote.
2. Annexation: Netanyahu prepares his campaign against Gantz and Ashkenazi
At their meeting, Netanyahu and Gantz were supposed to discuss the plan to annex part of the West Bank. Instead, the meeting turned into a political quarrel. Gantz left without seeing the annexation maps. Likud leaked to the press that Gantz refused to see the maps.
Likud would like to have Blue & White's complete support for the annexation move, which Netanyahu has scheduled for July 1. Blue & White ministers, however, are constantly saying in interviews that their support will not be automatic. They will vote against it because it has not undergone regional dialogue with the Jordanians, and it is being carried out without the support of the moderate Arab states, and with no strategic discussion of its implications.
Likud is preparing the public relations case against Gantz and Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabi Ashkenazi over annexation. If they break up and go for elections, Netanyahu will bring up the pair's opposition to annexation of the Jordan Valley, and present to the Israeli public a campaign blaming them for the move not going ahead. The two of them said during the last election campaign that they were in favor of annexing the Jordan Valley, but made it conditional on international consent and coordination with Jordan.
3. The budget standstill
Perhaps the clearest sign of deep problems between the sides is the lack of joint work on the state budget for 2020-2021. The coalition agreement stipulates that by August 15, "The coalition will pass the budget in orderly fashion, including special budgets for dealing with the coronavirus crisis. The budget will be for two years, 2020 and 2021."
The parties on the right of the coalition, however, say they are in favor of a budget for 2020 only. Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni, of the United Torah Judaism party, for example, issued a statement saying "We cannot know or predict what will happen in 2021. My view is that a one-year budget should be prepared and presented to the Finance Committee for approval as soon s possible."
Dividing the budget into two separate parts, for 2020 (four months only) and for 2021 means entering into unending political disputes between now and March 31, 2021. Budget disputes are the fiercest of all in any government. For years, Netanyahu has demanded two-year budgets in order to save himself this political headache. Suddenly, demands are being raised to split it up.
There is no way of seeing such demands as anything but expressions of the desire to look for conflicts from which countless pretexts will arise to break up the government. In that situation, Gantz will become prime minister for just three months, and Netanyahu will campaign against him with full force as alternate prime minister.
Has anyone started preparing a four-month 2020 budget? From "Globes'" enquiries it emerges that at the moment there is no progress. 30 of the 90 days allowed by the coalition agreement have passed, and nothing has been put on the table.
4. Procedures not updated
In one of its first decisions, the government decided at the end of May (resolution number 11) that ministers Avi Nissenkorn and Ze'ev Elkin would draft the procedures for the work of the 35th government to reflect the principle of equality between the coalition partners. The two ministers were supposed to have completed the work by June 7, 2020. The deadline passed, and there are no procedures. This means that the procedures for the 34th government dating from 2015 remain in force, and any decision can be passed by majority vote, including a decision on annexation.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 17, 2020
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