Netanyahu accepts budget delay to avoid fresh Israeli elections

By Rosie Scammell in Jerusalem

Israel has narrowly avoided being thrust into a fourth round of elections after Benjamin Netanyahu announced a deal with his coalition partner to delay the country’s budget.

The prime minister secured his political survival earlier this year by agreeing a coalition deal with Benny Gantz, but the unhappy alliance was facing imminent collapse over financial matters.

Lawmakers had until midnight on Monday to pass the budget or approve a 100-day extension, otherwise parliament would automatically be dissolved and polls set for November.

Just hours after the government’s weekly cabinet meeting was scrapped, reportedly over the disagreement, Netanyahu said he had agreed to an extension “out of national responsibility”.

“This is the time for unity and not for elections,” he said.

Netanyahu’s comments came shortly after Gantz’s Blue and White party accused him of manipulation and “spitting in the face of the Israeli public”.

“We call upon the prime minister to get in line and come back to seeing the good of the country rather than his own personal good,” the party said in a statement.

The two sides had repeatedly traded barbs in recent days, leading to fears Israelis could be heading to the polls yet again.

The end of the political deadlock prevents the coalition from crumbling but does not resolve Israel’s financial woes. After the budget was delayed by three inconclusive elections the government has been using last year’s plan throughout 2020.

With the coronavirus pandemic sparking an economic crisis, the government has announced additional financial measures such as cash handouts to Israelis, but some experts say such an approach is unsustainable.

“We’ve never had such a concerning situation,” said Daphna Aviram-Nitzan from the Israel Democracy Institute, who argued that passing a budget was vital for stimulating growth.

“The government must start to lead the way and start to show that they know what to do,” said Aviram-Nitzan, who heads the institute’s governance and economy centre. “It’s the minimum that they should give to the business sector,” she said, before Netanyahu announced the compromise.

Unemployment reached a peak of 27% in April and, with the country experiencing a second wave of coronavirus infections, officials are mulling a second shutdown in the coming weeks that would be a further blow to business.

The coalition deal clinched by Netanyahu and Gantz included a two-year budget but the prime minister had been pushing for a one-year budget for 2020 alone.

Netanyahu’s critics had accused him of wanting Monday’s deadline to be missed so he could tear up the agreement under which Gantz will take over as prime minister late next year.

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, held talks with party leaders on Thursday and told them Israelis “feel cheated and suspicious” after three elections in less than a year. “The president stressed that it is inconceivable that the question of approving the budget will lead to a fourth round of elections,” Rivlin’s office said.

Netanyahu’s decision paves the way for lawmakers to approve the three-month delay to agree a budget, although the threat of polls could return as the new deadline approaches.

A poll published earlier this week showed Likud would be the frontrunner in elections, picking up 29 seats compared with the 36 it won in March. Blue and White would pick up just nine seats, according to the Ma’ariv newspaper poll, down from 33, after lawmakers abandoned the party once Gantz joined the coalition.

“[Likud’s] position has weakened somewhat in the polls but it is still clearly the biggest party,” said the political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin on Thursday. “Netanyahu has some interest in either calling elections or threatening to call elections.”

Netanyahu is emphasising the deal reached with the United Arab Emirates earlier this month, but his foreign policy success cannot mask discontent among the electorate about his recent handling of the pandemic.

Thousands of Israelis protested outside the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence on Saturday evening, the latest in weeks of demonstrations. Israelis are also rallying against political corruption, after Netanyahu became the first sitting prime minister to go on trial for graft in May.

But despite calls for the prime minister to step down, many Israelis will be relieved that the prospect of a fresh poll has been ruled out for now.

“The public does not want another election,” said Scheindlin. “It’s madness.”