Israel lawmakers approve budget in key win for governing coalition

The coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett needed to pass a budget by Nov 14 to avoid a fifth election in three years. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel's Parliament approved the government's two-year budget on Friday (Nov 5), a key victory for the ideologically disparate ruling coalition that averts its collapse and moves the country towards political stability after years of crisis.

The coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, which unseated veteran premier Benjamin Netanyahu in June, needed to pass a budget by Nov 14 to avoid a fifth election in three years.

The coalition counts on support from right-wingers, centrists, leftists and Islamists and controls just 61 of the 120 seats in Israel's Parliament, the Knesset. Yet it sustained no defections through nearly 36 hours of continuous budget votes.

Roughly 600 separate parliamentary votes were required to pass the 609-billion shekel (S$264.78 billion) spending plan for 2021 and the 573-billion shekel package for next year.

"Tonight we got Israel back on track," Mr Bennett tweeted shortly after the full package was approved early Friday.

The vote indicated his coalition could hold together despite its deep ideological differences and wafer-thin majority.

Approval of the 2022 spending was particularly crucial for the four-year coalition because it stabilises the alliance up to the period when Mr Bennett is due to turn the premiership over to centrist Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in 2023.

Any suggestion that the government might fall before Mr Lapid takes power under the power-sharing deal could have unsettled the coalition's left wing, experts said.

Israel's three-year failure to pass a budget is a symptom of the political gridlock that plagued the country under Netanyahu's leadership from December 2018 until when Mr Bennett's government was sworn in.

Amid the laborious voting process, now opposition leader Netanyahu mistakenly voted with the government six times, tweeting after: "It can happen that you get confused when voting. Ask anyone who voted for Bennett".

Netanyahu had vowed to play the role of spoiler for the government that finally brought an end to his 12 straight years in power.

He has blasted the coalition as "a government of liars" and his camp reportedly lobbied some of Mr Bennett's right-wing allies to vote against the coalition.

"We must bring down this irresponsible government," he told lawmakers as voting started Wednesday.

His failure to do so could trigger increased calls for a leadership change within his party, Hebrew University political scientist Yonatan Freeman told AFP.

"The passage of the budget will weaken Netanyahu's hold on the Likud party," Mr Freeman said.

It was a budget deadlock that sank the last, short-lived coalition led by Netanyahu and his alternate premier Mr Gantz.

Mr Gantz accused Netanyahu of deliberately blocking the budget's passage in December last year to force an election, which the premier hoped would secure him and his right-wing allies an outright majority.

But Netanyahu came up short in the March vote for the fourth time in two years, paving the way for Mr Bennett and Mr Lapid to forge a coalition.

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