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Coalition passes 2021 budget, first in 3.5 years, averting early election threat

The Knesset on Thursday passed Israel’s first budget in over three years, hurdling the first of a series of steps as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition seeks to overcome its differences and opposition objection to approve a series of bills meant to guide the country’s spending until the end of 2022.

Lawmakers voted to approve the 2021 state budget just after 5 a.m, following an all-night session that they will be expected to repeat over the coming 24 hours to pass more budget items as part of the major package.

Passing the budget is seen as a key test for Bennett’s eight-party coalition, both to prove that the ideologically disparate alliance can come together on major issues and because failure to do so by a November 14 deadline will trigger new elections automatically.

The NIS 609 billion ($194 billion) spending plan for 2021 is the first budget Israel has passed since 2018, due to a prolonged political deadlock that saw successive governments fall before they could bring a proposal to the Knesset.

Bennett feted the budget approval on Twitter, calling it a “holiday for the State of Israel.”

“After years of chaos — we have created a government, overcame the [coronavirus] Delta variant and now, thank God, we passed a budget for Israel! Continuing forward at full strength,” he wrote.

MKs are expected to reconvene after a few hours of rest to pass the Economic Arrangement Bill that details how the financial plan will be put into practice, followed by a vote on a NIS 573 billion ($183 billion) budget for 2022.

The budget plan includes nearly $10 billion in funding over five years to improve socio-economic conditions for Israel’s Arab minority, which the Arab Ra’am party had demanded as one of the conditions for their support.

It also hikes some taxes that the ultra-Orthodox argue will affect them the most.

With hundreds of clauses and dozens of objections submitted by the opposition, voting is expected to take until Thursday evening at the earliest.

Despite having only a single seat edge over the opposition, the coalition managed to win all of the several hundred votes held late Wednesday and early Thursday.

Bennett had earlier predicted the coalition would have a 780-0 record, referring to the number of votes it was expected to take to pass the whole package.

In his remarks from the Knesset podium ahead of the voting, Bennett said passing the budget was “the most important moment since the government was formed.”

He said the new budget being introduced comes “after three and a half years of chaos, failed management and paralysis, years in which the country was a tool in a personal game, years of four election campaigns one after another at a dead end.”

The diverse composition of the government led by Bennett — made up of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties plus an Islamist faction — is, however, complicating the effort to pass a budget, with the opposition of a single lawmaker theoretically able to bring down the wafer-thin coalition.

Some individual lawmakers used the coalition’s tiny margin of 61 seats in the 120-person Knesset to force issues, such as New Right’s Zvi Hauser, who threatened to boycott the plenum unless more money for the National Library was included in the budget.

In another incident, Housing Minister Zeev Elkin agreed to postpone and reconsider the planned eviction of a family from public housing in the town of Gan Yavne, after two coalition lawmakers said they would leave the plenum Thursday morning to observe the removal of the family.

As the marathon session began, it became clear that the Joint List, a predominantly Arab Israeli party, was voting with the rest of the opposition against the budget, meaning that the coalition would likely need all of its lawmakers present for the entire voting process. However, the Joint List voted with the coalition on objections raised by Likud, giving the coalition a bit of breathing room.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu also helped the coalition along at one point, accidentally voting with the government. The same mistake was also made by Shas head Aryeh Deri, though their votes did not change the outcome in either case.

While failure to pass the bill could see the government collapse, passage of the economic plan is expected to stabilize the coalition for the near future at least, amid attempts by the opposition to drive wedges between the coalition’s various ideologies.

Throughout the night, MKs fortified themselves with candies and sweets to stay awake and alert as they sped through votes, while also aiming bitter accusations across the aisle at each other.

In a speech ahead of the voting, Netanyahu lauded anti-government protesters who gathered in Tel Aviv’s HaBima Square Tuesday, saying they came to “drive out the darkness “of the current government.

Digging into the ruling coalition, Netanyahu denounced the “government of lies” which he asserted would raise the costs of living for Israelis.

Earlier, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said it would be the first budget passed in three and a half years “because of the personal interests of one man, who was willing to sacrifice Israel’s economy” for that interest — another reference to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is widely believed to have torpedoed the most recent budget under his power-sharing government with Benny Gantz, in order to bring down that coalition and avoid passing the premiership on to him as had been agreed between the two as part of their deal.

That fight led directly to the collapse of the last government and the most recent election, the results of which saw Netanyahu ousted from office.

Knesset proceedings on the budget began Tuesday with speeches by lawmakers, each of whom was granted 30 minutes to address parliament.

The budget bill for 2021 passed its first reading in September by a 59-54 vote, with the 2022 budget passing 59-53.

Source: TOI