‘Black flag’ activists protest against Gantz outside homes of his party’s MKs

Members of the movement warning of threat to democracy lambaste his decision to enter into coalition with Netanyahu, call to maintain promises to fight corruption

Illustrative: A convoy of cars belonging to the 'black flags' protest movement arrives at Kibbutz Givat Haim to protest near the home of Israeli Resilience MK Ram Shefa, March 28, 2020 (video screenshot)
Illustrative: A convoy of cars belonging to the 'black flags' protest movement arrives at Kibbutz Givat Haim to protest near the home of Israeli Resilience MK Ram Shefa, March 28, 2020 (video screenshot)

Dozens of demonstrators in the so-called black flag movement drove on Saturday to the homes of several Knesset members of Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party to protest his shock decision Thursday to join a unity government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while breaking up the Blue and White alliance.

The protesters were also demanding that, coalition or not, party members continue to support action against corruption and against threats to democracy.

The movement’s name has come from demonstrators pinning black flags to their vehicles to symbolize what they believe is a danger to Israeli democracy. The demonstrators have largely kept to their cars in order to maintain social distancing directives aimed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“We came out to fight for democracy and we will continue to do so,” organizers said in a statement. “We expect the MKs of Israeli Resilience to keep their promises from the past week: to keep [Yuli] Edelstein out of the Knesset speakership [and] to legislate against corruption.”

An emerging unity deal between Likud and Israel Resilience (which was one of three parties that formed Blue and White, alongside Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem) could reportedly see Edelstein return to the speaker’s chair despite having left it this week amid intense controversy over his conduct.

The demonstrators first arrived at the home of MK Ram Shefa at Kibbutz Givat Haim in central Israel, and were later headed to the homes of Miki Haimovich, Avi Nissenkorn, Meirav Cohen, Michael Biton, Asaf Zamir and Yizhar Shai.

שבת?מה?מה פתאום.# שיירת כלי רכב הדגלים השחורים שמממן אהוד ברק…נכנסה לקיבוץ גבעת חיים, שבו מתגורר ח"כ מחוסן לישראל רם שפע, כדי למחות על כוונתו לשבת בממשלת נתניהו.

Posted by ‎שרון פרי‎ on Saturday, March 28, 2020

According to a report on the Maariv website, Shefa came out to speak with the demonstrators, telling them: “So we’re clear, I see things just as you do. I fought it in recent weeks. I was with you in the convoy [to the Knesset]… I drove with you to Jerusalem. And I continue to believe the most important thing here is to fight for democracy.”

The protests were first held outside the Knesset in Jerusalem earlier this month, when hundreds of cars drove along Route 1 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and rallied outside the Israeli parliament to protest against the government and particularly Edelstein.

Edelstein, Knesset speaker at the time, had refused to allow the Knesset to vote on setting up parliamentary oversight of the government’s far-reaching measures to tackle the viral outbreak, while also preventing to schedule a vote on his replacement. This led to accusations by activists and center-left politicians that the government was attempting an illegal, undemocratic power grab.

Knesset committees were finally established early this week, and Edelstein resigned on Wednesday during a highly controversial confrontation with the High Court of Justice over his refusal to allow his replacement.

Benny Gantz delivers his maiden speech as Knesset speaker, March 26, 2020. (Knesset)

But Gantz stunned the country only a day later when he announced that he was submitting himself as candidate for speaker, as part of a deal with Netanyahu to set up a unity coalition in which Israel Resilience will have only about a fifth of parliamentary seats but outsize power in decision-making and portfolios.

Lapid and Ya’alon quickly announced they were breaking up their alliance with Gantz’s party, sundering Blue and White (though they apparently plan to keep the name for the ongoing union of their two parties).

Gantz has said his actions were necessary as Israel is in a state of emergency due to the global viral pandemic and cannot face a fourth election at this time. He is likely to relinquish the speaker’s position once a government is formed — potentially back to Edelstein, though he is said to be trying to foil that — and take on the role of either defense or foreign minister. According to the reported agreements he is then slated to take over as prime minister in September 2021, though many political analysts doubt that such a rotation will actually take place.

A Channel 12 poll published Friday evening showed a majority of Israelis, including a majority of Blue and White voters, backed Gantz’s decision.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) addressing the Knesset next to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, March 23, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

And Gantz on Friday insisted he was “at peace” with the move. “This is the time for leaders to choose what is right and put the lingering issues and personal scores aside,” he said in a Facebook post.

Gantz said that he, along with former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi, his deputy, had decided that the only alternative was a fourth round of elections, which was not an option during the coronavirus crisis.

Gantz reiterated his praise for his former Blue and White partners Lapid and Ya’alon, calling them “patriotic” and “principled,” but said they refused to acknowledge there was no other way forward.

Gantz’s now-ex partners in the Blue and White alliance lambasted him on Thursday, with Lapid excoriating him during a press conference with Ya’alon for “crawling” into a coalition of “extremists and extortionists.” He said the former army chief had betrayed Blue and White’s voters, stolen their votes and handed them to Netanyahu. Despite his claims, Gantz was not entering a unity government, but had simply “surrendered” to Netanyahu, Lapid said.

Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2020. (Elad Gutman/Blue and White)

Ya’alon joined in, saying Gantz was joining a government that “represents everything that we oppose” in a move that was “disappointing to say the very least.”

Even as Blue and White split into three parties, there appeared to be discord within the factions, suggesting there could be further shifts.

Gantz appeared to win the support of MK Yoaz Hendel from Telem, who tweeted: “Leadership is measured in moments of crisis, the good of the country before political interests. That is the choice of Benny Gantz.”

However, Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh of Israel Resilience, the first Druze woman elected to the Knesset, vowed she would not join Gantz.

“Leadership and honesty are measured in times of crisis. A leader does not betray his principles and voters,” she wrote. “I came to politics to replace the racist, divisive government of the Nation State Law, and not to be a partner in it.”

Blue and White candidate Gadeer Mreeh (C) and party head Benny Gantz (R) attends a meeting with members of the Druze community of Israel in the city of Daliyat al-Karmel in northern Israel on March 7, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“I will not serve one day under the corrupt man from Balfour,” she said, referring to the Prime Minister’s Residence.

Gantz said he regretted the decision of his colleagues to split with him, but said he had no choice.

The Blue and White party came together in 2019, formed of three constituent parts: Yesh Atid, which provided much of the party’s infrastructure having already run in several elections, and Israel Resilience and Telem, which were newcomers on Israel’s political scene.

Gantz was handed the mandate to form a government earlier this month after three rounds of seemingly inconclusive elections, but appeared to have no clear path to forging a stable coalition. Both he and Netanyahu, who has run Israel for over a decade but is facing criminal charges, had publicly touted the need for a national emergency unity government in light of the coronavirus crisis, but neither had appeared to make any meaningful steps toward that goal before a Wednesday night phone call between the two.

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