PM, Blue and White exchange allegations of political duplicity

Several thousands of protestors gathered again outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem to protest his handling of the public health crisis and call for his resignation.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz pass each other in the Knesset last year. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz pass each other in the Knesset last year.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Blue and White Party exchanged allegations of political chicanery Thursday night, against the background of severe coalition tensions which erupted in the Knesset on Wednesday.
Amid heightened speculation that Netanyahu is seeking elections to strengthen his political position, Netanyahu said in a press conference that “I am not seeking elections and I want a budget for the country, but my partners from Blue and White don’t want to pass one.”
Blue and White struck back immediately, saying that “the prime minister should cease the descent to elections and do two things: deal with the coronavirus crisis through a long-term budget, and stand by the agreement he signed two months ago.”
Their mutual contentions relate to a potentially fateful disagreement over whether to pass a one year or two year budget which, if unresolved, could cause automatic elections by August 25.
The exchange came following efforts on Thursday among the coalition parties to reduce the political tensions that broke out on Wednesday, with senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni meeting with both Justice Minister Avi Nissenkoren of Blue and White and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
UTJ was left fuming on Wednesday after an opposition bill to ban gay conversion therapy was passed with the help of Blue and White votes.
The ultra-Orthodox party threatened a series of retaliatory measures, including bringing legislation antagonistic to Blue and White to a vote in the Knesset this week, although it is now reportedly backing away from such steps.
According to a report by KAN, the meeting between Gafni and Nissenkoren was positive, and UTJ is now reconsidering whether to bring its legislation to a vote next week.
UTJ MK and party faction chairman Yitzhak Findrus told The Jerusalem Post however that he had not received any such instructions to pull the bills.
Gafni’s meeting with Netanyahu reportedly went less well, and UTJ is concerned about the prime minister’s intentions.
A senior UTJ source said that the party had “no idea what Bibi wants, but we’re concerned that he himself doesn’t know what he wants.”
UTJ is already upset with the prime minister for having allowed the bill to come to a vote, and for his management of the coalition, as well as having concern that the ongoing delays in passing a budget will impact yeshiva stipends for the coming year.
A spokesman for the prime minister declined to comment on the meeting between Gafni and Netanyahu.
Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri has also expressed concern over the state of the coalition, but opposition to new elections, telling his party’s mouthpiece “HaDerech” that the coalition is “at the brink of the abyss,” and that “the country cannot allow political paralysis in the midst of a severe public health and societal crisis. It’s unthinkable.”
Looming over Wednesday’s political fight is the bitter struggle over the budget, in which Blue and White is insisting on a two-year budget, as set out in the coalition agreement with the Likud, while Netanyahu is demanding a one year budget.
A one year budget for 2020 would give Netanyahu the opportunity to go to elections in March 2021 if the 2021 budget is not passed by the end of that month, without handing over the premiership to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
A report in Haaretz on Wednesday suggested that sources close to Netanyahu have indicated that the prime minister has decided to go to elections in November, primarily due to his legal entanglements and his desire to retake control of the Justice Ministry, currently held by Nissenkoren of Blue and White.
Polls released on Thursday night may however cause him to think twice about such a move, with the Likud rapidly losing support.
A Channel 12 poll put the Likud on 32 seats, down four from their current total, and the Yamina Party, led by Netanyahu’s fierce rival MK Naftali Bennett on 15 seats, up nine from its current total.
Bennett has said that he would not automatically back Netanyahu to serve as prime minister after new elections, and with Netanyahu’s public approval on his handling of the COVID-19 public health crisis continuing to decline steeply, going to new elections may be risky.
The possibility exists for the Likud to form a bare majority now, without elections, of 61 MKs with Yamina, the Derech Eretz faction, MK Orly Levy-Abecassis and the ultra-Orthodox parties, but Bennett is unlikely to agree to such a step given his exclusion from the current coalition by Netanyahu and his soaring poll numbers.
A Likud source said the party was not thinking about such a possibility.
President Reuven Rivlin denounced the behavior of the coalition and the political infighting, accusing the warring parties of petty squabbling while the country is in crisis.
"I look on the developments in the Knesset with deep concern as they shake the already fragile relations between coalition partners,” said the president.
“As a citizen and on behalf of us all, I say: get a grip! Stop the talk of early elections, of that terrible option at this time, and save yourselves from it. The State of Israel is not a rag doll you drag around as you squabble. The people need you all to be focused, clear and finding solutions to this crisis. It's in your hands.”
In the shadow of the political instability and ongoing COVID-19 crisis, several thousands of protestors gathered again outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem to protest his handling of the public health crisis and call for his resignation.
Tamar Shneck, one of the protestors at the rally, accused the prime minister of “taking advantage of the coronavirus for power,” and said he was trying to increase his authority by leveraging the health crisis.
“You can see that he's continuing to do so. You can see that he's always stripped Israel of its democratic powers,” she said.
The rally was mostly good-natured, and included a “meditation protest,” a “classical music protest” and demonstrators burning sage leaves, with no violence or confrontation with the heavy police presence in the early hours of the rally.
A protestor in the meditation group said they had come to show the “need for quiet strength instead of violence,” and lead by example.
Rhetoric towards the prime minister by some demonstrators was however extremely sharp, with one protestor carrying a sign saying “Stopping the plague of dictatorship” in reference to Netanyahu, and another describing him as “a fatal plague” residing in the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street.
Protestors stood in front of a police line, yelling "Justice for Iyad," in reference to the 32-year-old special needs student, Iyad al-Hallak, who was shot by Border Police in May after they assumed he was holding a  suspicious object.
Some also gathered against police brutality, as they yelled "I can't breath" in Arabic, English and Hebrew.
Police distributed flyers at the entrance to the protest with a set of rules to abide by during the protest, and an insistence that “public order” be maintained.
The police instructed protestors that the demonstration must end by 11 p.m. On Wednesday night, the refusal of demonstrators to leave has led to violent clashes with the police.
A pro-Netanyahu demonstration was also staged across the road from the anti-Netanyahu rally, and was attended by several hundred supporters.