Coalition jockeying comes down to wire as indictment, possible 3rd election loom

With Gantz facing a Wednesday deadline to form coalition, Netanyahu to speak at ’emergency’ rally against Arab-backed minority government; Liberman says his decision will come soon

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches rival Benny Gantz as they and other party leaders including Avigdor Liberman and Aryeh Deri prepare to pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches rival Benny Gantz as they and other party leaders including Avigdor Liberman and Aryeh Deri prepare to pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

With just three days left for Blue and White chief Benny Gantz to form a coalition, the political sphere was buzzing Sunday with coalition jockeying, meetings and mutual accusations as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up his warnings against an “insane” potential minority government backed by Arab parties.

Following Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition in the aftermath of the inconclusive September elections, the Blue and White party leader has until Wednesday to do so, after which Knesset members may choose a candidate to be given the mandate or decide to head back to elections, the third in less than a year.

In a twist of fate, this week will also likely see Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announce his decision on whether to charge the premier in three corruption cases, according to reports, further complicating Netanyahu’s position since Gantz has vowed not to sit in a government under a prime minister facing criminal charges.

Netanyahu has stepped up his rhetoric against the possibility of Gantz forming a minority government backed by Israel’s Arab-led factions in recent days, seemingly aimed at leaving Gantz with no choice but to agree to a unity government with the Likud leader remaining as prime minister or admit his failure to form a coalition and risk new elections.

While most of the Blue and White party has declined to give interviews, No. 2 Yair Lapid tweeted Sunday that “if instead of all the ‘horror shows’ and the racist incitement, Bibi would agree to come without his bloc and to go second in the rotation, there would have been an excellent unity government. Neither the country nor its security interest him.”

The Kan public broadcaster on Sunday quoted unnamed sources who had been talking with Netanyahu associates as saying the premier’s lawyers have strongly recommended that he let another election to be called, giving him more time to prepare his defense in the court cases likely to be announced.

In a video message Saturday night warning against allying with Arab parties, Netanyahu seemed to be kicking into renewed election campaign mode, directly addressing Blue and White co-leaders Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi, who like Gantz are former military chiefs of staff: “Are you out of your mind? There’s time to stop this insanity. Speak to [Gantz], come to your senses, and come for that same unity government the nation expects us to go for together.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, on November 12, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

After the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Netanyahu was scheduled to hold a meeting at 11:45 a.m. of his 55 MK-strong bloc of allied religious and ultra-Orthodox parties. The premier has insisted on holding negotiations with Blue and White only as part of that broader bloc and not just as Likud leader — one of the reasons unity talks have not yielded even minimal progress.

At 6 p.m. Sunday evening, he is expected to attend and speak at an “emergency” rally against a minority government at Expo Tel Aviv.

Over the weekend Netanyahu held a conference call with Likud ministers and MKs, in which he warned of “an emergency situation,” claiming Blue and White had decided to try and establish a minority government shored up by the outside support of Arab Knesset members. Netanyahu called on his colleagues to help organize mass public opposition to such a move. It was not clear what Netanyahu’s comments were based on, and there was no statement to that effect by the leaders of Blue and White, who insisted they continued to seek a unity coalition. Netanyahu has made similar assertions on numerous occasions in the past.

A third election, Netanyahu told officials, would be “a disaster.” But “a minority government dependent on the (mainly Arab) Joint List is even worse.” He said such a government, “dependent on supporters of Islamic Jihad and Hamas,” would be “historically dangerous” to the Jewish state.

But Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the National Union — one of the factions in Netanyahu’s bloc — tweeted Sunday that he refuses to “join the hysteria regarding a minority government.” The chances of that scenario materializing were “tiny,” he noted, and even it happens, it would likely hurt Gantz and benefit the right in the long run. His tweet received support from MK Yoav Kisch of Netanyahu’s own Likud party.

Leader of the Joint list Ayman Odeh (R) and party member Ahmad Tibi arrive for a meeting with party members at the Knesset on September 22, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi told Kan public radio in an interview Sunday morning that while there have been talks with Blue and White on a potential minority government, there has not been an official proposal yet.

“We won’t elaborate on the talks, so that Netanyahu keeps being hysterical,” Tibi said. “We are willing to do a lot to kick out Netanyahu, the inciter and liar.”

Fellow Joint List lawmaker Mansour Abbas told Army Radio that Netanyahu himself had also held talks on a minority government after the April elections, but eventually chose to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections.

Blue and White, meanwhile, was expected to hold a meeting with members of Avigdor Liberman’s secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party at 2:30 p.m., and then at 4 p.m. with a team from the center-left Labor party.

Likud minister Yariv Levin upped the pressure on Liberman, saying he should not join a minority government and instead join forces with Likud to form a right-wing government — the same one he declined to join six months ago over insurmountable differences with the ultra-Orthodox parties over religion and state matters.

A minority government hinges on the support of Liberman, who has previously campaigned on tough policies against Arab Israelis and who regularly denounces them as illegitimate political figures.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman talk to reporters after meeting in Ramat Gan on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Liberman hasn’t yet decided whether to back such a government, and on Sunday told the Ynet website that all options were on the table and that his party would make a decision by Tuesday night.

Nevertheless, Liberman added that a minority government “doesn’t make sense.”

Liberman and Netanyahu will meet at 5:30 p.m. at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv.

Gantz met Thursday with Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu party holds the balance of power in the Knesset. Liberman, a right-wing secularist, campaigned on forcing a unity government between Likud and Blue and White that does not include ultra-Orthodox or “messianist” parties if neither could form a government without him after the September 17 vote.

After the meeting, Liberman hinted at disagreements at the top of Blue and White, saying that all leaders from the party must announce they accept a unity plan pushed by President Reuven Rivlin, which would see Gantz take over as prime minister only in case Netanyahu is indicted.

Liberman has urged a Netanyahu-Gantz unity government, but has said he would support whichever party accepted his terms if the other did not.

Channel 12 reported over the weekend that Yisrael Beytenu last week proposed a bill to ease the process of splitting up Knesset factions, in an apparent bid to allow members of the ruling Likud party to jump ship and join a coalition with Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu.

But the network noted that the odds of passing such a bill and convincing seven Likud MKs to quit their party in the few days left for Blue and White chief Benny Gantz to form a government were extremely low.

President Reuven Rivlin and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz meet at the President’s Residence on November 15, 2019 (Mark Neiman/GPO)

Gantz met with Rivlin Saturday evening to discuss intensified efforts to reach a compromise that would allow a unity government to be formed.

Gantz was tasked last month by Rivlin with putting together a coalition after Netanyahu failed to do so following elections in September, which left both Blue and White and the premier’s Likud short of a governing majority with their respective allies.

Coalition negotiations have stalled amid Netanyahu’s making his agreement to join a government conditional on the inclusion of his right-wing and religious political allies, and Gantz’s refusal to serve under a prime minister suspected of criminal wrongdoing.

Rivlin’s proposal for a power-sharing rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz would see Netanyahu serve as prime minister first, but take a leave of absence from the position if and when he is indicted.

According to a recent Channel 13 report, the proposal stalled over Netanyahu’s refusal to commit to not seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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