Israel risks being thrust into a fourth round of elections and further financial strife as coalition rivals clash over meeting a Monday deadline to pass the country’s budget.
The veteran prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, secured his political survival earlier this year by clinching a coalition deal with his rival Benny Gantz. But the unhappy alliance faces imminent collapse if the two cannot agree on money matters.
Lawmakers have until midnight on Monday to pass the budget or approve a 100-day extension, otherwise parliament will automatically be dissolved and polls set for November.
With no compromise being reached by Sunday morning, the government’s weekly cabinet meeting was scrapped reportedly over the disagreement.
“We’re ready for solutions … There’s no reason to take us to elections,” Gantz said on Saturday.
After days of his Likud party trading barbs with Gantz’s Blue and White party, the prime minister on Thursday stressed it was “important that we do everything to prevent another election” and pass the budget.
The political stalemate following three inconclusive elections has long delayed Israel’s budget, with the government 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.
“We’ve never had such a concerning situation,” said Daphna Aviram-Nitzan from the Israel Democracy Institute, who argued that passing the 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.”
Unemployment reached a peak of 27% in April and, with the country going through a second wave of infections, officials are mulling a second shutdown in the coming weeks which would be a further blow to business.
The coalition deal clinched by Netanyahu and Gantz included a two-year budget, but the prime minister is pushing for a one-year budget to cover 2020 only.
Netanyahu’s critics say he wants Monday’s deadline to be missed, so that he can 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.
A poll published earlier this week showed Likud picking up 29 seats in a fresh election, down from the 36 the party 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 en masse 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.
“Netanyahu has some interest in either calling elections or threatening to call elections.”
Netanyahu is emphasising the landmark 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, as Netanyahu in May became the first sitting prime minister to go on trial for graft.
But despite calls for the prime minister to step down, few Israelis are enthusiastic about the prospect of heading back to the polling station.
“The public does not want another election. Nobody wants this – it’s madness,” said Scheindlin.