Opposition leader cites the coronavirus epidemic as the reason for his decision to pursue a unity government.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief governing partner Benny Gantz said on Tuesday that his party will vote for an opposition bill to dissolve parliament – a move that could force a fourth election in under two years.
Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party is currently the key partner in a precarious coalition led by Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud.
That coalition – which was only formed after three bitterly fought elections between Netanyahu and Gantz failed to produce a clear winner – was plagued from the outset by infighting and recriminations.
Gantz, a former army chief serving as defence minister, said Netanyahu’s refusal to support a budget proposal made clear the prime minister wanted to take Israel back to the polls.
In a televised address, he said that Blue and White “will vote tomorrow in favour of dissolving the Knesset [legislature]”.
“The only one who can prevent these elections is Netanyahu,” Gantz said. “The burden of proof is on you.”
Wednesday’s vote on an opposition-backed measure is preliminary, however. If it passes, it will still require at least two additional successful Knesset readings before a new election must be called.
Shortly before Gantz spoke, Netanyahu released a video on Twitter in which he urged Gantz to vote against the measure.
“Now is not the time for elections,” Netanyahu said. “Now is the time for unity.”
The Netanyahu-Gantz unity government, agreed on in April, was in part aimed at providing Israel with desperately needed stability following the worst political crisis in its history, and as the coronavirus pandemic was gathering pace.
Netanyahu was to serve as prime minister for the first half of the three-year deal, with Gantz taking over in November 2021.
The deal included several provisions that would have automatically triggered the collapse of the coalition, including a failure to pass a budget.
Gantz, accusing Netanyahu of dragging out the talks for personal reasons, apparently does not want to wait that long.
Once the budget is complete, Netanyahu would be forced to commit to their rotation agreement next year and yield power to Gantz. But if the government collapses, Netanyahu would remain as prime minister throughout the three-month election campaign and until a new coalition is formed.
Fearing a new election is inevitable, Gantz appears to have concluded it would be best for the vote to take place as soon as possible, when Netanyahu’s corruption trial is under way and with COVID-19 still out of control.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of offering favours to wealthy media figures in exchange for positive news coverage about him and his family.
The trial is expected to kick into high gear in February, when a string of witnesses is scheduled to testify.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, would benefit by further delaying the budget talks. That would give more time for the coronavirus vaccine to arrive and the economy to begin recovering next year, presumably giving him a better chance in elections.
Opinion polls predict that Netanyahu’s Likud party would still emerge as the largest party in parliament in the next election, but with far fewer seats than it currently has.
Gantz’s Blue and White has plummeted even further, making it in both leaders’ interests to compromise and avoid a new election.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Yair Lapid, the sponsor of the bill to dissolve the government, welcomed Gantz’s speech.
“Six months after the formation of this bloated and disconnected government, it is clear to everyone that Netanyahu can’t lead Israel out of the corona crisis,” he said.