As clock winds down on Gantz, Netanyahu breathes a sigh of relief

As clock winds down on Gantz, Netanyahu breathes a sigh of relief

PM has managed to deny his centrist rival a parliamentary majority, and stands poised to reap the rewards when Blue and White chief finally gives up his mandate on Wednesday night

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz during a faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz during a faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The dour mood in Blue and White could be felt all through the night Tuesday. If anyone there had hoped that the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and party leader Benny Gantz would bring a last-minute breakthrough in efforts to form a unity government, the post-meeting statements quickly poured cold water on what had already been largely understood ahead of time: the odds were slim to none.

Senior Blue and White officials despaired.

“Netanyahu is unwilling to give up anything,” one told Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site. “He is insisting on serving the entire first year as prime minister in the rotation. He’s not compromising on the leave of absence [in case he is indicted on criminal charges], with no one clear on when it would start and when it would end. He’s unwilling to give up immunity.

“If Netanyahu had accepted [compromises on] these terms, Gantz would [even] have broken up Blue and White [to join a unity government]. But he has no reason. Even those among us who want to go to unity [with Likud] weren’t given that option by Netanyahu,” the official added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting of his right-wing bloc at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 20, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)

A Netanyahu video put out while he was meeting with Gantz was seen by Blue and White as an electioneering stunt or part of the blame game for the looming elections. Netanyahu called on Blue and White to use the US announcement Tuesday that it no longer views settlements as illegal in order to back Netanyahu’s election promise to annex the Jordan Valley. The video was designed to enable him to blame Blue and White for missing a “historic opportunity,” a term he has bandied about enthusiastically in recent days, Blue and White officials charged.

Tuesday’s intensive political activity gave the impression that something serious was happening. Party leaders conversed, the president met with everyone, negotiators from Likud and Blue and White sat together.

Less than 24-hours later, after Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman declared he would not back Gantz or Netanyahu without the other, the stage appeared set for Gantz to return the premiership mandate to the president Wednesday night.

Netanyahu, of course, will breathe a sigh of relief. Barring a major surprise late on Wednesday, the reins will pass to the Knesset’s lawmakers for the next 21 days to pick someone to hand the mandate to, or dissolve parliament and declare a third round of elections.

The new situation will be better for Netanyahu. He has a structural advantage: he heads a bloc of 55 MKs and is closer to achieving a parliamentary majority than his rival. The right-wing Haredi bloc has proven strong and stable. Gantz only has 44 MKs, and not all of them are loyal. It’s not just Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, fellow leaders of Blue and White, who have refused to join a unity coalition with Netanyahu; Labor-Gesher head Amir Peretz and Democratic Camp chief Nitzan Horowitz also said Tuesday they did not want to sit under Netanyahu.

Blue and White party leaders (from left) Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi meet to discuss ongoing coalition negotiations on November 17, 2019. (Courtesy/Elad Malka)

A disappointed Gantz has few options left over the next three weeks. For what it’s worth, he can console himself with the knowledge that he was nominated to head Israel’s government – an honor only a few have been able to claim since Israel’s founding.

He may want to carefully study the political maneuvers Netanyahu has used to limit his options over the past month, from the formation of the rightist Haredi bloc of 55 seats through the appointment of Naftali Bennett as defense minister and the massive media blitz he orchestrated over the non-existent minority government with Arab parties’ support.

Gantz may be in the big leagues, but when it comes to cut-throat political skullduggery, he is apparently still a rookie.

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