Israeli lawmakers negotiate ahead of looming budget deadline

Israeli lawmakers were trying to negotiate a last-minute deal on Sunday to push back a looming budget deadline and avoid sending the country to its fourth parliamentary elections in less than two years.

The current political crisis pitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against rival-turned-partner Defence Minister Benny Gantz is ostensibly over the country’s national budget. By law, if the government does not pass a national budget by 90 days after it is formed, the Knesset automatically dissolves. That deadline expires on Monday night.

But the crisis has deeper roots in the troubled partnership between Netanyahu and Gantz, economic troubles stemming from the country’s coronavirus outbreak and the prime minister’s ongoing corruption trial. Critics accuse Netanyahu of using the budget battle to force a new election in hopes of securing a friendlier parliament that could help solve his legal troubles.

After three deadlocked elections, Netanyahu and Gantz reached a power-sharing agreement in April to form a government to address the COVID-19 crisis. As part of their coalition deal, Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White agreed to pass a two-year budget.

But Netanyahu has insisted on passing a budget to cover only the remainder of 2020, saying it will provide immediate assistance to the economy. Gantz is adamant that the government honour its agreement and pass one for 2020 and 2021. Their disagreement has again brought the country to the brink of political meltdown.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing criticism over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and for his decision not to step down amid his corruption trial. (Emil Salman/Haaretz/Pool/The Associated Press)

Zeev Elkin, a Likud party minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, told Army Radio on Sunday that “there was a dialogue between the parties” and that “we are trying to avoid elections in any way possible.”

The Knesset’s finance committee convened later Sunday to discuss a bill to postpone Monday’s deadline by 100 days, until Dec. 3. If the committee approves the deferral, it must pass two rounds of voting in parliament before Monday night’s deadline.

But pushing back the deadline would only kick the budget crisis down the road. The two parties are at loggerheads over several key issues — including judicial appointments and the annexation of West Bank settlements — and the government has been beset by infighting.

Gantz also complained that Netanyahu left him and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in the dark about the deal announced earlier this month to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates.

If the budget deadline is not deferred and new elections are triggered, it would plunge the country into political chaos during a deep economic and public health crisis, all while the prime minister is on trial for corruption.

Criticism over handling of coronavirus 

Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases. His criminal trial began in June, but he has refused to step down from office and denies any wrongdoing.

At the same time, Israel has recorded more than 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 800 deaths. Unemployment remains above 20 per cent, despite the government’s reopening of the economy in May following a more than month-long lockdown.

Netanyahu has faced intense criticism over his government’s handling of the crisis and the largest sustained protests against his rule in nearly a decade. On Saturday, an estimated 10,000 people took part in a weekly protest outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, calling on Netanyahu to resign.

Nonetheless, recent polls indicate he would score a sizable victory if snap elections were held. By dissolving the government, Netanyahu would avoid giving Gantz the premiership in November 2021, as required by the coalition agreement.

Netanyahu appears determined to remain prime minister — and therefore not legally obligated to resign while under indictment — through the duration of his trial, which is expected to last several years.

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