As teams representing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival Benny Gantz met Tuesday as part of negotiations for a possible unity government, a senior figure in the Blue and White party raised questions over the premier’s true intentions in the long-shot effort to solve the political paralysis that has emerged from last week’s deadlocked national elections.
Speaking to The Times of Israel on Tuesday as the two teams met, a senior Blue and White source said the centrist party’s lawmakers, including its chairman, did not believe Netanyahu really wanted to form a unity government and was instead planning on forcing a third round of elections.
“We support Benny’s decision to meet with Netanyahu 100 percent. But we are under no illusion that he really wants a unity government with us,” the Blue and White member said, speaking for fellow MKs.
“This is a ploy by Netanyahu to push new elections. Period,” the source added. “Benny knows it just as well as the rest of us.”
The prime minister on Monday met for the first time with Gantz, at the residence of President Reuven Rivlin, and agreed to begin talks aimed at building a unity coalition. Rivlin invited them to return on Wednesday and they agreed for their negotiating teams to meet on Tuesday.
But immediately after the meeting, Netanyahu assured his religious right-wing political partners on Monday night that he would stick to his pact to negotiate as a bloc with them. At the same time, Gantz told his party members that he would not abandon his promise to voters not to let Netanyahu remain prime minister, indicating that the political gridlock which has left Israel without a government for months could persist.
“We have said all along, we want a unity government but there are certain red lines for us. Yes, [Gantz] is also being pushed to negotiate with Netanyahu but he knows what he is facing. He knows that Netanyahu is trying to play him,” the Blue and White source said on Tuesday.
“You can tell by what he is saying in public alone that he has no intention of allowing Benny to serve first as prime minister. He thinks that his bloc of 55 gives him the upper hand and he is going to use it to demand the first shot, or keep the negotiations from moving forward. He knows we won’t sit with them. He wants us to reject his false promises so that we look like we are forcing new elections, which is what he wants.”
Netanyahu last week had the Yamina, Shas and UTJ parties sign an agreement with his own Likud party to negotiate as a group, after elections that saw the right-wing and religious parties fail to garner enough support to form a coalition on their own. Gantz and his center-left partners also fell short of the needed 61 seats.
Following the Rivlin-initiated talks with Gantz, Likud said Netanyahu spoke by phone with the heads of allied parties to update them on them meeting. According to a Likud statement, Netanyahu said he stressed to Gantz he was representing the “entire nationalist camp” and handling negotiations on behalf of all of them.
“I’m committed to what I promised you,” Netanyahu was quoted saying.
Gantz has insisted he head any unity government and ruled out sitting with Netanyahu due to his pending indictment on graft charges. In the final weeks of the election campaign, Gantz also vowed to form a “secular” government and rejected partnering with Shas and UTJ.
After leaving the President’s Residence, Gantz updated Blue and White leaders on his talks with Netanyahu, the centrist party said, and said he told Netanyahu unity was not possible unless he stepped down as prime minister.
“The public chose change. and we have no intention of giving up on leading [the coalition], on our values or on our natural partners along the way,” Gantz said in the party statement.
Netanyahu and Gantz met for over two hours at the President’s Residence, first with Rivlin and then alone, with talks reportedly centering around who would head a possible joint government. Rivlin returned to speak with the two again before the meeting ended.
Rivlin was expected to propose a rotation agreement that would see the two party chiefs share the premiership, though agreement over the order of such a deal remained elusive.
Rivlin told Gantz and Netanyahu that as neither had secured a majority of recommendations to form the next government, he had greater leeway in who he would task to do so. His decision on who he’ll select as the potential next prime minister will come by next week.