Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday that he had agreed to extend contentious budget talks with his main rival, preventing a collapse of his government that would have triggered a fourth national election in under two years.
While the decision defused the immediate budget crisis, it did not address the deeper issues that have plagued the power-sharing arrangement between Netanyahu and his bitter rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz. Since forming a coalition government in May, the two men have repeatedly feuded, and Netanyahu, facing the distraction of a potentially career ending corruption trial, has repeatedly hinted that he would prefer a new government that might be more lenient toward his legal woes.
In a nationally televised address, Netanyahu said now was not the time to force the country into an unwanted election. He cited the new opportunities created by his recent historic agreement to establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, combined with the economic and public-health challenges caused by the coronavirus crisis.
“Now is the time for unity. Not for elections,” he said.
Under their coalition deal, Netanyahu and Gantz had faced a midnight deadline Monday night to agree on a budget. Otherwise, the government would have collapsed and automatically triggered a new vote.
Sunday’s budget compromise merely gives the sides an additional 100 days to reach a deal, setting the stage for a similar showdown in December. In the meantime, Netanyahu said it also would allow the government to direct spending to struggling areas of the economy and allow schools to reopen on time next week.
“This proposal allows money to begin flowing immediately to the citizens and the economy and it prevents the need for elections,” he said.
There was no immediate comment from Gantz or Blue and White.
Netanyahu, citing the country’s economic crisis stemming from the coronavirus outbreak, has called for a short-term budget of several months. Gantz says the sides must stick to their original agreement of a two-year budget, especially with most of 2020 already behind them.
Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said Sunday’s compromise extended a period of uncertainty that has harmed large parts of society.
“Another 100 days without a budget?” he said in a statement. “This government is detached from reality, enough!”
Netanyahu and Gantz, a former commander of the Israeli military, battled to three stalemates in a series of elections in under a year. With neither man controlling a parliamentary majority and the country facing a burgeoning coronavirus crisis last spring, they agreed to form their partnership.
Their parties — Likud and Blue and White — split control of key government ministries and parliamentary committees. In addition to serving as defense minister, Gantz took on the new role of “alternate prime minister,” and the men agreed to rotate the premiership in November 2021, at the halfway point of their partnership.
But since taking office, the rivals have clashed over almost every key issue, including the budget, Netanyahu’s pledge to unilaterally annex occupied West Bank territory and this month’s historic agreement to establish official ties with the UAE. Gantz was locked out of the UAE deal, which froze the annexation, and only learned about it after it was completed.
But critics, including Gantz, say that Netanyahu’s legal troubles are driving his decision-making process. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of exchanging favors with powerful media figures.
In January, his trial is scheduled to move into the witness stage — when a series of former allies are scheduled to testify against him in sessions set to take place three times a week. The testimonies will likely be an embarrassing and time-consuming distraction.
A new election could potentially give Netanyahu a parliamentary majority with allies who would allow him to make key appointments, including a new justice minister, national police chief and attorney general, that could influence his legal process and delay or cancel the trial.
“The only thing standing between us and another round of elections has nothing to do with the unprecedented economic crisis, but rather with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand for an immediate change to the system for appointing senior public officials,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
“At the heart of the changes Netanyahu is pushing for is his demand to grant himself or those in his inner circle with greater influence, if not total control, over these appointments,” he said, calling Netanyahu’s demands a “conflict of interests.” Plesner made the remarks shortly before Netanyahu’s appearance.
Yet forcing new elections would also carry great risks. The country would be plunged into chaos during a deep economic and public health crisis. Lockdown measures imposed last spring led to a spike in unemployment, and then easing the lockdown too quickly led to a renewed outbreak in the coronavirus that the government has not yet been able to control.
The economic troubles have led to a drop in support for Netanyahu’s Likud party and drawn thousands of people to join anti-Netanyahu protests outside his official residence, calling on him to resign. Recent opinion polls have indicated the country remains deeply divided, with Likud and its allies holding an edge, but not assured of an outright victory with his right-wing allies.