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After Meron, Gantz said to explicitly tell Netanyahu no on forming government

Israeli TV says Blue and White chief told PM he is committed to ‘change bloc’; also reports that premier won’t seek extension of mandate unless coalition realistically in reach

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on August 24, 2020. (Knesset Spokesperson's Office)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on August 24, 2020. (Knesset Spokesperson's Office)

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has explicitly told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he won’t form a government with the premier’s Likud party, Israeli television reported Friday.

The Channel 12 report, which came as Israel reeled after 45 people were crushed to death in a stampede during a religious festival in northern Israel, said Gantz had relayed this message to the premier following the tragedy, believed to be the worst peacetime disaster in the country’s history.

Gantz stressed to Netanyahu that he is committed to the “change bloc” of parties seeking to replace the prime minister, the network said, without citing a source.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is fighting for his political and legal survival after the March 23 elections, as he struggles to form a government and is on trial for corruption charges, which he denies. His official mandate to assemble a coalition expires on Tuesday night, though he can request a 14-day extension from President Reuven Rivlin.

Last month’s elections, the fourth since April 2019, ended in gridlock, with Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc again coming short of a ruling majority, in part because three right-wing parties ran with the declared goal of replacing him. After the previous elections in March 2020, Netanyahu agreed to a power-sharing deal with Gantz in which two agreed to swap off as prime minister, but it dissolved in December after the prime minister refused to pass a two-year state budget, the only way elections could be called without the Blue and White leader becoming premier.

On Wednesday, a report said Gantz has engaged in recent negotiations with Netanyahu to form a government, going against his pledge not to again form a coalition with the Likud leader. Gantz equivocated when asked directly about this in three TV interviews, though he said he had concluded there was no mileage in working again with Netanyahu.

President Reuven Rivlin, right tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, during a press conference at the President’s Residence, in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

In its main news broadcast Friday evening, Channel 12 further reported that Netanyahu was only expected to ask Rivlin for an extension before his mandate expires Tuesday night if he is close to forming a government and can prove to the president a majority is in reach.

Barring an unexpected breakthrough by then, however, Netanyahu has no clear way of putting together a ruling coalition.

Rivlin, who as Israel’s president is tasked with mandating a lawmaker to form a government, can either give Netanyahu an extension, hand the mandate to another lawmaker or kick it to the Knesset for a 21-day period, after which fifth elections would automatically be called if no one forms a government.

If Rivlin does task another Knesset member with forming a government, it is widely expected to be either Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid or Yamina chief Naftali Bennett, who have been holding talks on forming a unity government without Netanyahu. Bennett has also been holding separate talks with Netanyahu.

The various efforts to form a government have dominated headlines in recent weeks, though they were overshadowed by the disaster during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron.

It was unclear what — if any — impact the tragedy would have on the Israeli political system.

Israeli rescue forces and police at a mass fatality scene, after a stampede in a packed walkway, during celebrations of the holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Key pillars of Netanyahu’s bloc are the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, whose support he needs if he wants to keep faint hopes alive of staying in power.

During a visit Friday to Mount Meron, Netanyahu was jeered by dozens of religious protesters. If such sentiments spread, it could further hurt Netanyahu’s prospects.

The stampede also threatened to deepen a broad public backlash against the ultra-Orthodox.

Netanyahu came under heavy criticism over the past year for allowing ultra-Orthodox communities to flout safety guidelines by opening schools and synagogues and holding mass funerals at the height of the pandemic. The ultra-Orthodox communities were among the country’s hardest hit by COVID-19.

Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University and fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the coming days would see a battle over “framing” of the event. Netanyahu will call for national healing and unity, while his opponents will say the government’s failure to ensure the event was safe constitutes further proof that he is unfit to remain in office and it’s time for change.

“There is a battle on the framing, who is to blame, not to blame. Already we see the signs of it,” Rahat said.

AP contributed to this report.

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