Chairing his first full Knesset session, Gantz faces assaults from former allies

Yesh Atid MKs accuse Blue and White chief of betraying voters and partners, surrendering to Netanyahu; Meretz chief says he squandered his majority

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks at an election event in Tel Aviv, February 17, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks at an election event in Tel Aviv, February 17, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Chairing his first full Knesset session as speaker Monday, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz confronted intense criticism from his former allies in the center-left bloc for having abandoned them to enter into unity talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

MK Yoav Segalovitz of Yesh Atid, a faction that split from Gantz, expressed astonishment at his former party leader for having gone back on his promises, and noted Gantz’s criticism of former speaker Yuli Edelstein only days earlier for using his position for leverage in coalition negotiations.

“Benny, how did you get there?” Segalovitz asked. “On Wednesday you sent us, my colleagues and I, to the High Court. You said ‘We can’t accept this link between the Knesset speakership and coalition negotiations. It will not stand. I’m halting negotiations immediately. I’m a man of principle.’ … What are you doing over there, Benny?”

Using military imagery in addressing the former army chief, Segalovitz said: “We summitted the hill together, Benny, I reached the top and looked down. I found us up there and you below with a white flag.”

MK Yoav Segalovitz on February 19, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Yesh Atid’s Orna Barbivai, who served with Gantz in the military, expressed similar sentiments.

“I followed you for years,” she told Gantz as he listened silently from the speaker’s chair. “Fifteen years in the military, the last year in politics. There was no one happier than I for the alliance between Yesh Atid and [Gantz’s] Israel Resilience.”

She said Gantz entering a government under Netanyahu “went against every promise you gave voters, against every promise you gave us, against the alternative [we offered] to the Israeli public that you broke up single-handedly.

She added: “I never saw you lie… I don’t understand what happened to you. I don’t understand how you turned to such an extreme, on everything you said.”

She accused Gantz of squandering his chance to bring true change to the country.

“You had, and we had, a majority to act in the Knesset… Unfortunately you chose a different path, and in doing so not only betrayed your voters but hurt the chances of the entire bloc, perhaps for many years.”

Gantz made little comment during the proceedings, only expressing hope at the end that the discourse would continue to be civil, even when disagreements arise.

Gantz shocked Israeli politics Thursday when he was elected Knesset speaker, setting the stage for a coalition with the prime minister and splintering the Blue and White alliance, which had campaigned during the three elections over the past year on ousting Netanyahu, due to his indictment on graft charges. Gantz had vowed repeatedly never to sit in government with Netanyahu unless or until the Likud leader was cleared in the graft cases.

File: Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and MK Orna Barbivai at the Knesset on December 9, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz has explained his decision by citing the unexpected crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the need to bring stability back to the country and heal divisions after a year of three nasty election campaigns.

But unity government talks between Gantz and Netanyahu’s Likud party stalled on Monday, as the sides failed to come together on several issues.

One major point is Netanyahu’s insistence that Gantz commit to backing annexation of large parts of the the West Bank in coordination with the United States, which the Blue and White leader has refused to promise, according to Hebrew media reports.

While Netanyahu made declaration of Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements, as well as over the Jordan Valley, a staple of his campaign ahead of the March 2 election, Gantz offered mixed messages on the matter. He expressed support for annexing the Jordan Valley, but conditioned the measure on it being coordinated with the international community — an idea that appears far-fetched as the US has been the only country that has not rejected annexation offhand.

While tentatively backing the Trump plan earlier this year, the Blue and White chairman has long insisted he opposes unilateral steps to end the conflict and, according to Channel 12, has returned to that position in coalition negotiations.

Even before the election, annexation appeared well on its way to being achieved, as a joint US-Israeli mapping team arrived in Israel in February to tour the West Bank and mark the exact borders Israel could lay claim to under the plan.

However, the team’s progress has since stalled, amid the coronavirus outbreak, and it is unclear when it will be able to return to Israel to finish its work, with the November US presidential election also looming.

Other sticking points for the sides in unity talks are over appointments to senior posts, such as Knesset speaker, justice minister, and health minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on March 26, 2020. (Knesset)

Former speaker Edelstein is seeking to return to the post he vacated last week, when he quit rather than obey a High Court of Justice ruling requiring him to hold a vote on his replacement. Gantz has expressed opposition to the idea, having said Edelstein’s conduct was harmful to democracy. On Thursday, Gantz accused Edelstein of “spitting in the face” of the High Court.

According to Channel 13, Likud MK Edelstein is willing to give up on his quest to become speaker once again if he is named foreign minister instead. Army Radio reported that Edelstein’s associates were sending warnings to Blue and White that if Edelstein is not tapped as speaker, the position will be given to Likud MK Yariv Levin, who is seen as far more hardline.

Despite earlier reports to the contrary, Channel 13 said that Blue and White has also not given up on ousting Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who has been heavily criticized over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly for the ultra-Orthodox lawmaker’s inability to explain the importance of following the guidelines to the Haredi public, while also urging to keep ritual baths open throughout the country.

The network reported Monday that Blue and White is willing to relinquish the foreign ministry post that was likely to go to MK Gabi Ashkenazi, in exchange for one of its lawmakers being tapped to head the Health Ministry. However, Netanyahu raised the possibility with Litzman in recent days and the United Torah Judaism chairman rejected the idea out of hand.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As for the justice minister portfolio, Likud insisted that Blue and White MK Chili Tropper be appointed to the post, rather than MK Avi Nissenkorn from the same party or an appointee from outside the government, according to Channel 12. Netanyahu associates are concerned that Nissenkorn would take a more aggressive approach at walking back legislative moves to curb the power of the courts — efforts that right-wing lawmakers have been championing in recent years.

Netanyahu is facing pressure from his right-wing and religious partners, who have expressed frustration over posts they had long held being handed to Gantz’s party.

On Monday, the Yamina faction issued a public letter to Netanyahu in which it “established red lines” for the coalition being formed, warning that if they are crossed, the national religious slate would take its six seats and sit in the opposition.

Various unconfirmed reports Sunday said that in the emerging government, Yamina would be cut down from three current minister positions — Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Education Minister Rafi Peretz — to just the education portfolio.

In their Monday letter, the Yamina lawmakers stated their rejection of allowing Gantz to veto West Bank annexation, as well as to the appointment of Blue and White lawmakers to head the justice and defense ministries.

In light of Yamina’s threats, Likud has been demanding that the new government contain no less than 36 minister portfolios, according to Blue and White sources cited by Hebrew-language media.

A Likud source told The Times of Israel that the current draft of the deal being discussed by Likud and Blue and White negotiators sees parity between the religious-right and center-left blocs, with several concessions being made on both sides.

Jacob Magid and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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