JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief governing partner on Tuesday said he would vote in favor of a proposal to dissolve their troubled coalition, accusing the Israeli leader of repeatedly breaking his promises and pushing Israel closer to its fourth election in two years.
The announcement by Defense Minister Benny Gantz that he would vote in favor of a preliminary no-confidence measure on Wednesday did not immediately cause the government to collapse. Rather, it served as a warning by Gantz, who also holds the title of alternate prime minister, that he has run out of patience with Netanyahu and is ready to break up their alliance if a long-overdue budget isn't passed immediately.
A formal vote to dissolve the government could come as soon as next week, leaving the door open to last-minute negotiations.
“The only one who can prevent these elections is the one who decided to have them — Netanyahu,” Gantz said in a nationally televised speech. “The burden of proof is on you.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White battled to a stalemate in three consecutive elections before agreeing in May to form their coalition. Under the deal, Netanyahu is to serve as prime minister for the first 18 months before they trade places next November and make Gantz prime minister for another 18 months.
The two rivals agreed to the power-sharing deal with the stated aim of steering the country through the twin health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus. But the government has been plagued by paralysis and infighting.
Hovering over the disagreements is Netanyahu's ongoing trial on corruption charges. Gantz accused Netanyahu out of acting out concerns for his “personal survival" and working to thwart the legal process as the coronavirus rages and hundreds of thousands of Israelis remain out of work and families struggle to get by.
In his address, Gantz said he'd had “no illusions” about Netanyahu when he formed the government. He accused Netanyahu of blocking key appointments, delaying legislation and claiming credit for the accomplishments of others.
“Netanyahu didn't lie to me. He lied to all of you,” he added, looking straight into the camera.
The biggest area of disagreement has been the failure to pass a budget. Their agreement called for passage of a budget by August. They then agreed to extend the deadline until Dec. 23, but no progress has been made. A failure to reach a deal would cause the government to automatically collapse and trigger a new election.
Gantz, accusing Netanyahu of dragging out the talks for personal reasons, apparently does not want to wait that long.
Once the budget is complete, Netanyahu would be forced to commit to their rotation agreement next year and yield power to Gantz. But if the government collapses, Netanyahu would remain as prime minister throughout the three-month election campaign and until a new coalition is formed.
Fearing a new election is inevitable, Gantz appears to have concluded that it would be best for the vote to take place as soon as possible, when Netanyahu's trial is underway and with the coronavirus still out of control.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of offering favors to wealthy media figures in exchange for positive news coverage about him and his family. The trial is expected to kick into high gear in February when a string of witnesses is scheduled to testify.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, would benefit by further delaying the budget talks. That would give more time for the coronavirus vaccine to arrive and the economy to begin recovering next year, presumably giving him a better chance in elections.
Opinion polls predict that Netanyahu's Likud Party would still emerge as the largest party in parliament in the next election, but with far fewer seats than it currently has. Gantz's Blue and White has plummeted even further, making it in both their interests to compromise and avoid a new election.
In a video released ahead of Gantz's speech, Netanyahu accused Blue of White of acting like “a government within the government” and urged his rival not to force a new election.
"Benny, what needs to be done now is to make a U-turn from politics for the citizens of Israel," he said. “This is what needs to be done now and I'm asking you to do it.”
Gantz accuses Netanyahu of stalling the approval of appointments of key judiciary and law-enforcement officials, in hopes that a new election might allow him to bring together a friendlier coalition that could appoint officials more inclined to delay the trial or dismiss the charges altogether.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, the sponsor of the bill to dissolve the government, welcomed Gantz's speech.
“Six months after the formation of this bloated and disconnected government, it is clear to everyone that Netanyahu can’t lead Israel out of the corona crisis,” he said.