Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday urged Defense Minister Benny Gantz to halt continued support for a bill to dissolve the Knesset and call early elections, while refusing to commit to honoring his pledge to hand over the premiership to his coalition partner.
Netanyahu spoke hours after the proposal was passed by the Knesset in an initial vote, heralding the likely end of the power-sharing deal he signed with Gantz some six months ago. The move set the stage for the fourth round of national elections in under two years, though it must still pass more votes and move through committee, amid speculation that the sides may attempt to work out a deal before then.
In a press conference at the Knesset, Netanyahu said Israel was going through “dramatic days,” citing the coronavirus pandemic, unspecified security threats and Israel’s recent normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“In dramatic days like these, we don’t need to go to elections,” he said. “The people of Israel want unity, not elections. They want vaccines, not campaign broadcasts.”
“Benny Gantz needs to slam on the brakes” and prevent early elections, Netanyahu said.
He said that if Blue and White reverses course, “there can be unity.”
“There cannot be unity if Blue and White has a government within a government, has an opposition within a coalition,” he said, wryly coining a portmanteau in Hebrew that combines the words for “coalition” and “opposition.”
“I know it’s possible otherwise,” he added.
The premier also claimed “Gantz is being dragged by [opposition leaders] Lapid and Bennett” to support new elections.
The remarks closely echoed a statement he made a day earlier, moments before Gantz announced his decision to support the break-up of the Knesset by citing Netanyahu’s refusal to pass a budget for 2020 or 2021.
In his prepared remarks, Netanyahu didn’t refer to the budget — the issue at the heart of the coalition dispute.
Under their coalition deal, Gantz and Netanyahu agreed to pass a budget running through 2021. Netanyahu, however, has since refused to do so, providing him an off-ramp to new elections without having to turn over power to Gantz.
Pressed by a reporter on the budget, Netanyahu dodged the issue and again claimed Gantz was undermining the coalition.
He also seemed to acknowledge he wouldn’t honor the rotation agreement with Gantz, saying, “I promised unity, not a government within a government.”
Shortly after Netanyahu spoke, Gantz appeared to reject his call to avoid early elections.
“The economic terror attack you’re perpetrating against Israeli citizens while an economic, medical and social crisis is raging shows you’ve lost it,” said Gantz, referring to the budget impasse.
He accused Netanyahu of holding up the budget as leverage, amid the premier’s trial on corruption charges.
“If there was no trial, there would be a budget. If there was no trial, there would be unity,” he said.
Both Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina put out statements responding to Netanyahu’s speech, accusing him of sowing “hate” and putting his personal interests before the country.
Despite the public sniping, Channel 12 reported both Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud were seeking a compromise to avert elections, without citing a source.
A separate unsourced report from Channel 13 news said Gantz was open to joining a temporary government led by Yesh Atid-Telem No. 2 Moshe Ya’alon, if Lapid agrees to do so.
Lapid was the sponsor of the bill that was approved in a preliminary vote earlier Wednesday. The measure must still go through committee and pass three more readings in the Knesset before new elections are called, likely for sometime in the spring or summer.
If the Knesset dissolution bill isn’t ultimately approved, the government has until December 23 to pass a 2020 budget or the government will fall and elections will automatically be scheduled for March 23, 2021.
Likud and Blue and White have been at loggerheads almost since the inception of their power-sharing coalition in May, but ties between the two hit a nadir in recent weeks as the budget deadline nears. Gantz has accused Netanyahu of refusing to pass the 2020 and 2021 state budgets in one shot — as per the coalition agreement — in an attempt to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister in November 2021, also as per the coalition agreement.
Under that deal, the only scenario in which Gantz won’t become premier (apart from Blue and White causing the fall of the government) is if the government dissolves due to failure to pass the budget by the deadline.
Gantz said Tuesday that he could no longer support the government and that his party would support the bill to call early elections, calling Netanyahu “a serial breaker of promises.”