Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz met with Labor chief Amir Peretz on Monday to discuss a possible merger of their parties as they are set to join the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following the dissolution of Labor’s alliance with the left-wing Meretz.
The talks came as Gantz also met Monday with Netanyahu for new coalition talks, with their parties claiming progress toward forming a new government.
A joint statement from Blue and White and Labor said: “In the first stage, rules will be set on joint and coordinated work inside the Knesset, with the aim of merging the parties.”
The statement suggested the two parties could run on a joint ticket in future elections and said Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn and Labor MK Itzik Shmuli would be tasked with discussing these arrangements.
Labor ran in the last elections as part of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, which has unraveled since the March 2 vote.
Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abekasis broke off from the parliamentary faction last month over disagreements on now-defunct plans for Blue and White to form a minority government with the support of the predominantly Arab Joint List party, while Labor and Meretz said over the weekend they would end their merger amid reports Peretz and Shmuli were set to join Netanyahu’s next government.
The split between Labor and Meretz was approved by the Knesset Arrangements Committee on Monday, leaving the parties with three lawmakers apiece.
Peretz had campaigned on not joining a coalition headed by Netanyahu, a stance shared by Meretz, and even shaved off his mustache so voters could “read his lips” when he said he was sincere in his vow.
MK Meirav Michaeli, the only other Labor lawmaker in the Knesset besides Peretz and Shmuli, has expressed opposition to joining a Netanyahu-led government.
On Monday, she also came out strongly against a merger with Blue and White.
“In order to arrange two [ministerial] portfolios for Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli you don’t dispose of the party of [David] Ben-Gurion, [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Shimon] Peres,” she wrote on Twitter.
“There is no more Labor party,” she added, calling on the party’s members to oppose a merger with Blue and White.
Labor and its predecessor parties led Israel for nearly three decades after the country’s founding, but has seen its fortunes drop precipitously in recent years and has not been in power since 2001, when Ehud Barak was defeated by Likud’s Ariel Sharon in an election for prime minister.
If Labor does join the government, it will be the first time the party has been in a ruling coalition since 2011, when much of the faction bolted a Netanyahu-led government.
A joint statement from Likud and Blue and White Monday said, “Negotiations are underway and in good spirits, with the aim of establishing a national emergency government as quickly as possible.”
The two party chiefs met for several hours at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, with the talks apparently held at a distance, as Netanyahu has been under quarantine since Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, with whom he had been in contact, tested positive for the coronavirus last week.
According to a report Monday by the Kan public broadcaster, the main sticking point in the coalition talks was Likud’s insistence on veto power in the appointment of judges, with Blue and White willing to compromise on Israeli annexation of land in the West Bank.
Gantz’s party has been holding coalition talks with Netanyahu on forming a government in which the two would rotate as premier, with Netanyahu serving first. The negotiations gathered pace after Gantz was elected Knesset speaker with the backing of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, causing Blue and White to split.
Gantz said his decision to pursue a unity government was due to a combination of the pandemic crisis, the imperative to avoid a fourth round of elections and the threats to Israeli democracy, which left him no alternative but to abandon his promise to Blue and White voters through three elections not to sit in government under Netanyahu so long as the prime minister faces criminal charges.
The Yesh Atid and Telem parties, which broke with Blue and White over the move, have refused to join a government led by Netanyahu, citing his upcoming trial on corruption charges and their belief that he is untrustworthy and harmful to democracy.
“Benny, it isn’t too late to reverse the mistake in direction,” Telem leader Moshe Ya’alon tweeted Monday.