Sitting in the Channel 12 news studio Saturday night, at an appreciable distance from anchor Dana Weiss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared unequivocal in his appeal to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to join a unity government to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
The prime minister implored his rival to join him in an “emergency unity government” in order to help “save Israel” from the virus, which he said threatened to kill “tens of thousands.”
Netanyahu insisted he would share power on a completely equal basis with Gantz’s Blue and White party for three years, although he would insist on serving as prime minister for the first 18 months of that period, with Gantz then taking over.
Recognizing the depth of the mistrust between the two rivals for Israel’s leadership, Weiss asked Netanyahu to look into the camera and promise Gantz he’d abide by the terms of a unity deal. “100%,” said Netanyahu, casting his gaze at the lens. Would he truly hand over power, as scheduled under such a deal, in September 2021? “I’ll hand over power on the date that we agree — no tricks, no messing about,” he vowed.
The pledge may have convinced some viewers, but his main target audience was not impressed. The prime minister is bluffing, Blue and White sources told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
“There is no unity offer, there are no negotiations, and there remains deep skepticism about whether Netanyahu actually wants a unity government or is just playing politics,” said one party source, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
While Netanyahu said in his TV interview that the unity proposal — an equal number of ministers; Blue and White to hold the foreign and defense jobs, and Likud the Treasury and Knesset speaker’s job for 18 months, and then switching; and a justice minister agreed on by both sides, or a minister and a deputy from each party, with both required to sign off on major legislation and decisions — was “sealed,” Blue and White sources said that no such offer has even been officially presented to the party.
Instead of seeing it as a genuine call for unity, some in the party suggested that Netanyahu’s real aim was to try and break up Blue and White, pointing to an ultimatum that the prime minister gave, his “obsession” with holding at least some control over the Justice Ministry, and his attacks throughout the interview on various figures in Blue and White.
Netanyahu’s critics have accused him of seeking to hold on to power and refusing to compromise in order to try to save himself from looming prosecution in three criminal cases. Blue and White is reportedly seeking to fast-track legislation that would disqualify an indicted lawmaker from serving as prime minister. Netanyahu said if the party pushes out Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein as it aims to do on Monday in a move needed to advance the legislation, this would end the opportunity for a unity government. The Blue and White sources expressed disdain for what they termed an “ultimatum.”
Netanyahu also blamed Gantz’s Blue and White party for the sequence of events that led to Edelstein, a member of his Likud party, suspending parliament last week. As a consequence, there is currently no parliamentary oversight of radically intrusive measures introduced on Wednesday by the government that monitor the movements of all citizens to warn them if they have been in proximate, lengthy contact with a virus carrier and order them into isolation. The Knesset is set to resume activities on Monday, Edelstein has promised.
If the offer is rejected, Netanyahu said, Israel would be plunged into fourth elections. Blue and White “want to pass laws to prevent me from forming a government, so they can have deluxe elections in which nobody can compete with Benny Gantz.” That was the kind of thing they do in Iran, he said.
The coronavirus crisis caught Israel in the middle of one of the most precarious political situations in its history.
In the March 2 election, the third in the space of a year, Netanyahu’s Likud won 36 Knesset seats to rival Blue and White’s 33, but the Likud leader’s right-wing bloc again failed to muster a parliamentary majority.
On paper, while Netanyahu has more seats, Gantz has the advantage in forming a coalition and was tasked to do so by President Reuven Rivlin on March 16. Having won the recommendations of 61 (out of 120) Knesset members, including the entire Joint List of majority-Arab parties, the Blue and White chair could, in theory, form a coalition of parties who have vowed to oust Netanyahu, and replace him as prime minister.
Constructing a government with the backing of the Joint List, however, is a controversial move, one that before the election Gantz vowed he would not pursue. And vocal opposition by rightist members of Blue and White, MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, along with Labor-Gesher-Meretz’s Orli Levy-Abekasis, appears to have reduced the likelihood of that scenario.
Crucially, a move to create such a coalition — which would likely be a minority government supported from the outside by the Joint List – in the midst of the global pandemic would be perceived by a substantial proportion of the electorate, including some within Blue and White, as highly irresponsible. The deeply controversial “reliance on Arab votes” for a governing majority, many in Blue and White fear, could cost the party dear in a future election, which would not be far away given the inherent instability of such a coalition.
For now, Gantz’s Blue and White is actively working to oust Netanyahu — including via planned legislation to disqualify him because he is under indictment, with his trial having been set to begin on March 17 but pushed off to May after a “state of emergency” was declared in the courts as part of the government’s response to the coronavirus. Blue and White and its new ally, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, have also repeatedly called into question Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis, accused him of fear-mongering, and claimed that he is capitalizing on it to weaken Israeli democracy.
And Blue and White is bitterly denying reports — which it says are being pushed by the Netanyahu camp — that it is divided over the unity proposition, with Gantz and No. 4 Gabi Ashkenazi purportedly inclined to accept a deal, and No. 2 Yair Lapid and No. 3 Moshe Ya’alon adamantly opposed, and certain that Netanyahu could not be trusted to honor it.
Politically, for Netanyahu, a unity government would be a huge boost — it would defuse the threat of Gantz forming an alternative coalition, keep him as prime minister for at least the next 18 months, and also puncture Blue and White’s entire raison d’être: replacing him. It would also quash Blue and White’s legislative efforts to disqualify him. Set against all that, he might be calculating that he could strengthen his position still further if he can engineer fourth elections — running as the leader steering Israel through this crisis, against a rival who seemed ready to break a promise not to rely on Arab votes.
For Gantz, the question appears to be how he can best have an impact: as a strong opposition figure, fighting Netanyahu from across the House; as a junior partner in a unity coalition; or as the prime minister of a potentially weak and unpopular government.