As Netanyahu offers Gantz a hand in unity, his fingers are crossed

PM calls on Blue and White to negotiate ‘without preconditions’ — immediately after he signs an agreement that would make that impossible

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets Blue and White leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony for late Israeli president Shimon Peres on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets Blue and White leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony for late Israeli president Shimon Peres on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Politicians are often criticized for saying one thing and meaning another. Usually, however, when they do so, they try to not to make their true intentions obvious as they are actually speaking.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Thursday call for Blue and White chief Benny Gantz to enter talks to form a national unity government “without preconditions” could have been seen as a statesmanlike offer to wipe the slate clean after a bitter, hard-fought election campaign. The elections Tuesday left both rival blocs short of a Knesset majority, and Netanyahu could appear to be offering to start building a coalition together from the ground up.

The problem is that the offer came immediately after Netanyahu vowed to do exactly the opposite. On Thursday morning — before Netanyahu’s statement calling for a national unity government and before a speech in which he implied he could be open to a rotating premiership with Gantz — the Likud party publicized a document in which the prime minister’s Likud and the leaders of all the parties in the religious right agreed to only enter a coalition as a single unit and negotiate the terms of the new government together.

In light of that agreement, Netanyahu was reaching out to Gantz with a hand whose fingers were crossed — not even behind his back.

“I suggest we meet as soon as possible, without preconditions, to work together to establish a broad unity government representing all who believe in a Jewish, democratic Israel,” the prime minister urged at a state memorial event marking three years since the death of former president and prime minister Shimon Peres. He then hinted at a readiness to rotate the premiership, as Peres and Yitzhak Shamir did after deadlocked elections in 1984. “Shimon believed in uniting our people” and with that goal “he and Shamir agreed to cooperate,” Netanyahu recalled.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during a memorial ceremony for late president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019 (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

But the document signed earlier by Netanyahu and the leaders of Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina promised that their parties “will conduct coalition negotiations jointly and will enter any government only together. No party will hold any separate negotiations nor enter any government without all the rest of the parties.”

Additionally, the document says: “Our candidate for prime minister is Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Those seem to be fairly strong preconditions and would certainly undercut Netanyahu’s claim of no preconditions as he asked for a one-on-one meeting with Gantz later Thursday at “any time, any hour” to form the coalition by the end of the day.

Unsurprisingly, Blue and White — which has repeatedly ruled out sitting in a government under Netanyahu, who is expected to face a criminal indictment in the coming months, pending a hearing, and also said it will not sit in a government with the ulra-Orthodox parties — rejected Netanyahu’s offer as “spin.” It noted that Gantz’s party had won more seats than Likud in the election count, and accused the premier of seeking to blame Blue and White as he triggers an eventual third round of elections.

Predictably, that was just what Netanyahu did, saying in a statement responding to the rejection that he was “surprised and disappointed that at this time Benny Gantz still refuses to respond to my call to meet… The State of Israel needs as broad a unity government as possible — not a new election and certainly not a government that relies on anti-Zionist parties. Gantz, I suggested a meeting between us standing there. This is what the public expects from us.”

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