Israel Edges Towards New Election After Bills to Disperse Knesset Pass

YERUSHALAYIM -
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu walks in the Knesset during a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset on Wednesday. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

The short term of the 23rd Knesset came one key step closer to its completion on Wednesday, when MKs from the opposition and Blue and White passed Knesset dispersal bills.

The vote came just seven months after the coalition took office in a declaration of national unity to confront the coronavirus crisis. But since then, the alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White has been locked in never-ending infighting.

Bills sponsored by Meretz and Yesh Atid-Telem passed by a vote of 61 MKs in favor to 54 against. Bills sponsored by Yamina and the Joint List of Arab parties did not pass.

The bills were only passed in their preliminary readings, so they must pass three more times in the plenum and three times in the Knesset House Committee to become law and enable the Knesset to be dispersed, giving both sides some breathing room to resolve their differences.

The Joint List’s four-member Ra’am (United Arab List) party, led by MK Mansour Abbas, decided to not attend the vote, despite pressure from their Joint List colleagues to support the bill.

During the debate that preceded the vote, Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid-Telem) presented his faction’s dispersal bill and said, “The only that is uniting all the citizens of Israel these days is the sense that they have lost control over their lives, their work, their children. They have lost the sense that someone is running this business called the State of Israel. They have lost control over their lives because the government has lost control over the pandemic. It is not able to manage the pandemic. It is not able to manage the country. It is not able to manage itself.

“It’s all political interests and legal debates and tax breaks for Netanyahu and jobs for cronies. You care only about yourselves and in the meantime Israel is not being managed. You are endangering our lives. You are endangering our economy. You are neglecting our parents and burning the future of our children,” Lapid said in his speech.

The bill, he said, “is not being placed here today as another round of ‘just not Bibi.’ It is placed here because it is time to stop it, and as long as he is there, it will not stop. The anger and hatred and the failed management and the politics that is destroying our country – as long as he is there, it will not stop. Our children are growing in a sea of hatred. This must stop. I call on the Knesset to accept the bill, disperse, and allow the citizens of Israel to elect a government that truly cares about them.”

Responding on behalf of the government, Minister David Amsalem (Likud) said, “Yair Lapid, you are a little demagogue who lives off of incitement and the spread of poison. From morning till night. You make your living from it. You are a man who lives only on hatred.

“From your perspective, if tomorrow we will find a cure for corona, you’ll have a problem. When we close you ask, ‘Why are we harming the economy?’ And when we open you ask, ‘Why are we harming health?’ If you could have accused the prime minister of developing the coronavirus, that’s what you would have done. The truth does not interest you. You do not care what will happen here later, as long as Netanyahu will not be prime minister. And why? Only because he does good,” Amsalem said.

“Despite the fact that our situation in the polls is excellent, we in the Likud are against going to elections at this time. The prime minister and the members of the national camp are busy handling the corona pandemic and the economic crisis. But nothing interests [Benny] Gantz. He is being dragged after Lapid and [Naftali] Bennett, and after [Avi] Nissenkorn’s politics. He has no spine. The budget does not interest him; the rotation does. He has reached the conclusion that he will not get it so he decided to go to elections.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he will respond to the Knesset’s dispersal bills at 8 p.m. (local time).

Coalition Chairman MK Miki Zohar (Likud) said that he would ask Netanyahu to negotiate with Gantz and keep the government together, because it is not right to go to elections until after the coronavirus crisis ends.

In a gesture to the Likud, Blue and White postponed by a week a vote on its controversial Equality Bill. The bill was strongly opposed by the Likud and its coalition partners in Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as the Derech Eretz party that is part of the Blue and White faction.

The government still has not yet passed a budget for 2020. The lack of budget has caused severe hardships and cutbacks for Israelis at a time when unemployment is estimated at over 20% because of the coronavirus outbreak.

If a budget for 2020 isn’t passed by Dec. 23, law stipulates an automatic dissolution of the Knesset and new elections.

Under the coalition deal, Netanyahu is to serve as prime minister until November 2021, with the job rotating to Gantz for 18 months after that. The only way Netanyahu can hold on to his seat and get out of that agreement is if a budget doesn’t pass.

Gantz appears to have concluded that elections are inevitable and the sooner they are held the better. By pushing forward the election to early next year, he seems to be banking that Netanyahu will be punished by voters for a still-raging coronavirus pandemic and struggling economy.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, would benefit by dragging out budget talks and delaying elections to later in the year in hopes that a vaccine will arrive and the economy will begin to recover.