by Moran Azulay
Israel is expected to go to the polls on March 23 in a record fourth election in less than two years. This after MKs failed to approve a delay of the budget deadline, with the Knesset, set to be dispersed by midnight Wednesday.
Long hours of Knesset drama ended in the early hours of Tuesday morning with a clear message: A simple majority of lawmakers opposed a compromise to prolong budget negotiations between Likud and Blue & White in an attempt to stave off Israel’s fourth elections in two years – this time to be held as the country struggled to contain the coronavirus that has devastated its economy.
Until the very last minute, Likud and Blue & White leaders were uncertain how the vote would go on a bill to extend the budget deadline and thereby delay the dissolution of the Knesset. Rebels in both parties, however, soon made it clear that they would not save the coalition.
At times, it seemed that the coalition would indeed prevail with a narrow majority of one or two. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even made his way to the Knesset to vote, hoping to preserve the narrow edge for success.
Opposition MKs held dozens of conversations with their coalition colleagues under the radar Monday, without the knowledge of the Likud leadership.
Some MKs also held talks with Gideon Sa’ar, the former Likud minister and Netanyahu’s bête noire who recently quit the Knesset to form his own new party, which looks set to attract many Likud voters in the next elections.
A breakthrough between Likud and Blue & White seemed on the cards two days ago. But the refusal by Blue & White’s Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn to accept any reduction of powers over the judiciary as part of the agreement, made it clear to Gantz that many in his faction would not compromise with Netanyahu.
Gantz dropped his own willingness to negotiate and from that moment on, turmoil prevailed in the Knesset.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid set up a war room to ensure that the bill failed. A whiteboard was placed on the wall outlining all the ways to wipe out the coalition’s path to victory in the vote.
Members of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party met in the run up to the vote with Blue & White MKs, who until Gantz unexpectedly signed the coalition deal with Likud in April had all been members of the same alliance.
The Yesh Atid MKs targeted the Blue & White lawmakers who were wavering on whether to support the bill, hoping to convince them to allow the government to fall.
It became clear to Yesh Atid that the weak links in Blue & White were MKs Asaf Zamir, Ram Shefa and Miki Haimovich, and the pressure was directed at them.
Throughout Monday, most of the Blue & White MKs stayed home after Gantz freed them to vote as they wished, partly because some were in isolation and partly because some simply did not want to vote. The only ones who insisted on remaining in the Knesset were Zamir and Haimovich.
It later emerged that Ram Shefa, who is supposed to be in isolation, was also nearby in his car waiting to vote.
Zamir and Haimovich, who came under pressure from both sides, stayed out of the plenum as voting began, only to appear for the second and third readings of the bill to vote against.
Shefa leapt out of his car when voting had already started and arrived at the plenum at the very last minute to vote “no.”
Likud MK Michal Shir also hid in the Knesset parking lot as she waited for the vote. She also emerged from hiding to vote “no” in the third and final reading, angering her party colleagues.
Almost immediately afterward, she announced that she was leaving the Likud to join Sa’ar’s party.
Another shock was waiting for the Likud in the form of MK Sharren Haskel, who was also absent and did not respond to coalition leaders’ phone calls demanding that she cast a vote.
Once the bill was defeated, Likud announced that she too had decided to join Sa’ar – and deleted her and Shir from the faction’s WhatsApp group.