After a dramatic U-turn, Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz was elected Knesset speaker Thursday evening as part of an emerging unity deal, breaking up his centrist alliance to enter a government with his longtime foe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Receiving the full support of the right-wing bloc, Gantz was elected to the speaker’s post with the backing of 74 MKs. Eighteen voted against and the rest, including Yesh Atid, a faction within Blue and White, did not participate.
According to the reported deal taking shape, Gantz is set to partner with Netanyahu in a unity government, serving initially as foreign or defense minister and then taking over from Netanyahu as prime minister in September 2021. Gantz is expected to resign the speakership after a unity government is formed, to be replaced by a Likud MK.
In his first speech as Knesset speaker, immediately following the vote, Gantz promised to “examine and promote” a national unity government, but said that he would not betray his voters. He also cited the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic, saying that Israel needed such an “emergency” unity government to battle it.
“Democracy has won,” he claimed, referencing the bitter battle he fought over the past week with his predecessor as speaker, Yuli Edelstein of Likud, who tried to prevent a vote on the speakership, defied a High Court order to schedule it, and resigned on Wednesday. MK Meir Cohen, from Yesh Atid, was Blue and White’s initial candidate to take the job but withdrew on Thursday afternoon after Gantz presented his own candidacy.
Gantz promised in his speech to “build and strengthen democracy.”
“We will regulate its system of checks and balances, stop the unbridled attacks from irresponsible ministers, remove ideas of replacing the court and the prosecution, and work to end the rifts between us,” he said in pointed comments.
“I promise to all Israelis to do the right thing at this time. The Knesset will work for the people and citizens — all of them,” he said.
Gantz said that despite disagreements with Likud, he had chosen “to unify the people and not divide.”
“These are not ordinary days and require extraordinary decisions,” he said, citing the coronavirus crisis. “Therefore, as I said, I intend to examine and promote in every possible way a national emergency government.
“But don’t be mistaken — I would never compromise on the principles for which more than one million citizens voted,” Gantz continued. “Netanyahu knows this well and we have proven it well in recent days. I proved myself and we all proved we will never compromise on democracy.”
Gantz’s decision to join forces with Netanyahu led to the swift collapse of Blue and White, with the party’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, rejecting the move and apparently heading into the opposition with others from his Yesh Atid faction of Blue and White. “Gantz chose Netanyahu over Lapid,” Channel 12 reported succinctly.
Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem faction both filed a formal request to break away from Blue and White late on Thursday afternoon, leaving only Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party to join forces with Netanyahu’s Likud. Lapid had reportedly told Gantz he preferred that Israel go to fourth elections than see Blue and White partner with Netanyahu.
Rightist MKs Tzvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel from the Telem faction, both, however, voted for Gantz as speaker.
The coalition is likely to constitute 78-79 MKs — Likud, Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Labor, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism — according to Channel 12 (although other reports indicated Labor’s inclusion was not certain.) That would leave Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Ya’alon’s Telem, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and the mainly Arab Joint List in the opposition. However, various other fluctuations are deemed possible, with Telem’s Hendel and Hauser, for instance, possibly joining the coalition if this is permissible under Knesset laws.
The unity deal took shape as the Knesset met to vote on a new speaker, following Edelstein’s resignation on Wednesday.
If the unity deal pans out, Gantz will move from the speaker’s chair to the Foreign or Defense ministries for the first 18 months of the emergency unity government, before succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister.
It was not clear what post Netanyahu would fill at that stage. The prime minister has been indicted in three corruption cases, in a trial that was supposed to begin last week but has been postponed to May amid the coronavirus crisis. By law, a lawmaker under indictment is barred from serving as a minister.
Yoav Kisch, a Likud MK, used the debate preceding the vote on a speaker to praise Gantz for his “courageous” move in partnering with Netanyahu in the period of the coronavirus pandemic.
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, by contrast, warned Gantz from the podium: “You’ll end up a rug under the feet of an alleged crook, an inciter and racist… We’re standing here in shock trying to comprehend the depth of the deception… the disaster you’re inflicting on millions of voters [who backed] the left-democratic bloc… who sought an alternative [to Netanyahu].”
She continued: “What have you done, Benny Gantz? How can you do this to the millions of voters who supported you?”
The emerging coalition will include the Labor party, which will split from the Meretz party, Channel 12 said.
Fellow former IDF chief of staff MK Gabi Ashkenazi — No. 4 in the collapsed Blue and White party — will reportedly be either defense or foreign minister, and MK Chili Tropper will be the justice minister.