2020 continues to be a dramatic year for Israeli politics as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly decided against passing an Israeli state budget by the late-August deadline. This is because the coronavirus could thwart the two-year budget stipulated in the coalition deal he signed up to. Instead, Netanyahu wants a budget that covers the rest of 2020. This conflict has the potential to trigger another set of elections in November.
Haaretz reported on Wednesday that the Prime Minister intends to create chaos in the coalition to increase support for tearing apart the government.
The current coalition is led by Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party. They were sworn in after three inconclusive elections. The coronavirus pandemic caused the Blue and White leader to break his promise not to join Netanyahu’s government due to the latter’s indictment on corruption charges.
An Election is Still Netanyahu’s Preferred Option
Another reason why the Prime Minister has allegedly decided to seek another set of elections is because of the Jerusalem District Court’s ruling last week that witnesses will start testifying in his criminal trial in January. Apparently Netanyahu worries that he will be barred from serving as Prime Minister while he is on trial.
This is an incredibly risky move should Netanyahu choose to pursue it. He has already held three elections in over a year and neither one of them have improved his electoral fortunes. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister insists that this is still his preferred option and that he has no intention of breaking his rotation agreement that would allow Gantz to become Prime Minister in November 2021.
He may live to regret those words as Israel struggles to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Opinion polls conducted by The Times of Israel at the end of June found that if the Prime Minister held fresh elections, he would win two more seats, which would take his final total to 38. Netanyahu currently has 36 seats in the Knesset. Meanwhile, the Blue and White Party would collapse to 9 seats. However, these polls were conducted before Israel witnessed an increase in coronavirus cases.
The Coronavirus Has Sparked Anti-Netanyahu Protests
433 Israelis have died of COVID-19 and 23,560 others have recovered from it, but there are still 56,748 confirmed cases. Although Israel has experienced a small number of deaths compared to other nations, Netanyahu’s handling of the virus has sparked protests throughout Israel.
Last Saturday, thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem and at a park in Tel Aviv, voicing frustration over the government’s response to a pandemic that has devastated Israel’s economy.
Netanyahu’s government has also been torn between reopening the economy and extending the lockdown. The Prime Minister said that he reopened the economy too soon through late April and early May following the news that Israel experienced 1,000 new coronavirus infections a day in recent weeks, which triggered a broad range of restrictions. Markets, shops and other public venues have closed on weekends, while restaurants have been restricted to take away and delivery.
Israel Cannot Afford to Remain in Lockdown
Netanyahu announced plans to send cash to all Israelis in a bid to quell public anger over the economic effects of the lockdown, but many experts said Israel needs more targeted assistance.
The Israeli Government cannot afford to remain in lockdown forever. The same polls the Times of Israel conducted in June found that 58 percent of people disapproved of Netanyahu’s performance on the economic aspects of COVID-19. With unemployment already a problem in Israel, the Finance Ministry predicts that the economy could contract by 5.9 to 7.2 percent this year and it forecasts budget deficits of 13 to 14.2 percent of GDP. This is an awful time to hold an election.
If the polls are correct, Netanyahu would be able to remove Gantz from his coalition and collaborate with other right-wing parties. But polls are unreliable and an election could be an opportunity for voters to express their dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister’s handling of the coronavirus in general. He should proceed with caution.