Does Israel face a fourth election, third lockdown from political disarray?

Not necessarily. But both perils are raising their heads from the fiercely acrimonious duel raging between the two parties leading Israel’s government coalition. Even in a week of cheer induced by the steep downturn in coronavirus infection – as a result of a three-week lockdown – a storm of mutual blame and harsh backbiting has seized the ministers of Kahol Lavan and Likud.

Battle was joined on Monday, Oct. 19, by the No. 2 leaders of the two parties. Kahol Lavan’s FM Gaby Ashkenazi slapped down an ultimatum: if by the end of this month, the government refuses to back down on the 2020/21 state budget, approves senior official appointments and regulates cabinet meetings, “We’ll turn back to the  voter,” he said.

Likud’s Finance Minister Israel Katz struck back: “if Kahol Lavan wants another election, let’s go. We’ll beat them” he said, adding that a fourth election in less than two years was undesirable and bad for the country.

Coronavirus has hit Israel’s economy hard, forcing it to contract for the first time in decades. Often hand-to-mouth spending drew on the pro-rated version of the 2019 budget, including ($30bn) in relief for wage earners, businesses and householders, in the absence of a 2020 budget.

The argument over the state budget has bedeviled coalition relations from their outset in May. But Ashkenazi revealed that what really bothered his party was the disrespect it suffers from the Likud prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu: “It is insulting not only to the foreign and defense ministries, but for the whole country, that they were not briefed on the normal ties and peace agreements (with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) because we ‘could not be trusted not to leak them to Iran,” the foreign minister complained.

Netanyahu has accused Kahol Lavan and its leader Ganz of behaving like a government within a government. “It is time for Kahol Lavan to work with the government and for the people of Israel,” he said citing his successful operation for “curbing the contagion and saving lives.”

If Kahol Lavan’s leaders feel humiliated by Netanyahu’s highhanded style of government, the prime minister is fuming over what he sees as a persistent personal campaign against him.  For him, the demonstrations conducted routinely outside the prime minister’s residence week after week under slogans demanding his resignation, are but a continuation of the ticket, “Anyone but Bibi” on which Gantz’s party ran in three elections.  

When Kahol Lavan insisted – in the name of democratic rights – on allowing those demonstrations to continue throughout the lockdown for beating covid-19, the prime minister took this as a personal affront.

Gantz, for his part, perceives the Likud leader’s lax treatment of ultra-Orthodox communities who opened schools this week, in defiance of health restrictions, as a bid to curry favor with this powerful grouping in readiness for a fourth election early next year, which Kahol Lavan accuses Netanyahu of plotting.

Regardless of the bad blood coursing strongly through the 36-member coalition government, both its leading parties will at the end of the day do the math on their prospects of leading a government in the event of an early 2021 election. Although the polls are of limited value, they indicate some trends. The Kahol Lavan segment that Ganz and Ashkenazi split from the main body led by Yair Lapid (which leads the opposition) could hope for no more than 7-10 seats (in the 120-Knesset). Gantz has burned his bridges with Yair Lapid. Likud would decline to 25-28 although still be at the top of the chart. And although the right-religious bloc that he leads may hope for a majority of 60 plus seats, this would necessitate Netanyahu resolving his bitter feud with Naftali Bennett, whose Yemina (Right) party has rocketed since opting for the opposition benches..  

Barring unforeseen happenings, both coalition partners would have very little to count on from a snap election at this time, according to the polls. For the time being, therefore, Kahol  Lavan ministers may have to swallow their pride and Netanyahu may need to make an effort to get along with them. It is their shared responsibility not just to lift the clouds of coronavirus still hanging strongly over the country and deal with its disastrous, economic, societal and psychological damage, but to generate a more sanguine and trustful mood in country that is still working hard against all odds to weather the painful dislocations generated by the pandemic.

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