Rivlin: We must maintain democracy, even in a time of crisis

Entire Joint List backs Gantz as PM, heralding possible center-left government

Arab-led alliance, including Balad, could hand centrist leader the majority he needs to be tasked by president; says it’s only to counter Netanyahu; will oppose unity government

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

President Reuven Rivlin (L) meeting the leaders of the Joint List party (L-R) Ayman Odeh, Mtanes Shihadeh and Ahmad Tibi, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin (L) meeting the leaders of the Joint List party (L-R) Ayman Odeh, Mtanes Shihadeh and Ahmad Tibi, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Amid increased protective measures due to the coronavirus crisis, President Reuven Rivlin began his round of consultations with party representatives Sunday morning before deciding whom to task with forming a government following the general election earlier this month.

After the Likud party, as expected, recommended Benjamin Netanyahu to continue as premier and Blue and White recommended party leader Benny Gantz, the Joint List alliance of Arab and Arab-majority parties told Rivlin that all its 15 lawmakers would back Gantz as the next prime minister, a move that could potentially pave the way for a center-left government.

After elections, Israel’s president has the responsibility of tasking one of the 120 MKs elected in the March 2 vote to cobble together, and lead, a coalition that has the support of a majority of Knesset members.

Gantz would need a Knesset majority made up of his Blue and White (33 seats), the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu (7 seats) and dovish Labor and Meretz (6 seats without Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abekasis), with support from outside of the coalition from the Arab lawmakers of the Joint List (15 seats).

If all those parties recommend him to form the next government, even without becoming part of it, he would have the backing of 61 MKs compared to 58 for Netanyahu from Likud (36), the ultra-Orthodox Shas (9) and United Torah Judaism (7) parties, and the right-wing Yamina (6).

But while giving Gantz its support, the Joint List specified that it would only back his efforts to form a center-left government that would replace Netanyahu, and not any moves toward a unity government.

Party leader Ayman Odeh said if Gantz and Netanyahu decided to try and form a unity government, “we will be its biggest opponents.”

Odeh added that the hard-line Balad faction of the Joint List, which has been opposed to recommending Gantz, had nevertheless made the “brave” decision to recommend him. After September’s election, the three members of Balad chose not to recommend Gantz though the rest of the Joint List did.

Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, right. (Flash90)

Opening the consultations, which are being held with limited representation from each party and no press due to limitations on gatherings of over 10 people, Rivlin said that efforts to deal with the outbreak must not come “at the expense of Israeli democracy.”

“It is important that we follow the rules and instructions and do not give way to fear or panic. This is a trying time, not only for the health system and our economy, but for us all as a society,” Rivlin said in statements streamed online. “The success of the State of Israel in dealing with this extreme crisis lies in the hands of our civil society. Now is when we are asked to keep calm and to avoid hysteria.”

The number of Israelis diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, rose to 200 on Sunday morning. The Health Ministry said two of the sick remained in serious condition, with 11 in moderate condition and the rest suffering light symptoms only.

“Dealing with emergencies has never come at the expense of Israeli democracy, but has rather strengthened it and made our country, the State of Israel, more resilient. We are committed, more than ever, in light of the urgent need for a government, to hold essential democratic processes, even in a time of crisis,” Rivlin declared.

“These are not normal consultation; we need to work to form a government as soon as possible,” he warned, however.

President Reuven Rivlin meeting Likud party representatives during a round of consultations at his official residence in Jerusalem regarding determining a new prime minister, March 15, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Meeting first with representatives of Likud, the largest party, Rivlin repeatedly expressed support for a unity government, saying that it was the will of the voters and warning against the possibility of fourth elections if the deadlockwaisn’t broken.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who has previously led Likud’s coalition negotiating team, told Rivlin that Likud had offered Blue and White two options to join a unity government.

The first option would be a half-year “emergency” government led by Netanyahu, during which the Blue and White and Likud parties would receive an equal number of ministerial posts. For six months, the Likud leader would agree to refrain from firing any Blue and White ministers, and in exchange, MKs from the centrist alliance would be barred from supporting the toppling of the government in a no-confidence vote.

Alternatively, Netanyahu said he was prepared to discuss the idea of forming a four-year government, during which he would serve for the first two years as premier, with Gantz as his deputy, before they would switch places for an equal period of time.

“This is not the time for minority governments; this is not the time to make changes. It’s time for stability. It is a time for a government  led by people with experience. The parties that supported Prime Minister Netanyahu have won 58 seats, much more than Gantz supporters,” Levin said.

Slamming the idea of a minority government backed by the Joint List, Levin said, “Neither in routine times nor in emergencies is there room for a government that relies on people who do not accept Israel as a Jewish state and support terrorism.”

President Reuven Rivlin in consultations with representatives of Likud at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

In a more conciliatory tone, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz said, “Let’s sit down, respect the results of the election and the fact that there is a functioning and leading prime minister here, and you can join him, for the public interest.”

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu himself urged Gantz to accept one of the two options.

“Faced with global and national emergencies, we must unite forces and establish a strong and stable government that can pass a budget and make tough decisions,” Netanyahu wrote in a Twitter thread detailing the proposals.

The premier also reiterated his call for Labor-Gesher-Meretz chairman Amir Peretz and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman to join any government that would be formed.

“The State of Israel needs it. The people of Israel expect it,” he said.

Gantz, however, said in response: “Someone who wants unity doesn’t delay their criminal trial at 1 a.m., and doesn’t send the media a ‘plan for emergency unity’ — but sends a negotiation team to meet. Unlike you, I will continue to back every right action of the government without any political consideration. When you’re serious — we’ll talk.”

Hours earlier, the Jerusalem District Court announced that the premier’s trial would be delayed by two months until May 24 after Justice Minister Amir Ohana declared, in the middle of the night, a 24-hour “state of emergency” in Israel’s court system “as part of the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

The decision means that courts can only sit for urgent hearings on arrest and remand orders, administrative detention orders, offenses under legislation “relating to the special emergency” and certain interim relief in civil matters. Netanyahu’s case does not fall within the short list of exceptions.

Asked by Rivlin if the indictment against Netanayhu should play a role in the president’s decision of who to task with forming a government, Levin said, “Absolutely not. The public voted for the prime minister knowing the charges and still chose him.”

Speaking with Rivlin in the Blue and White consultation, party No. 3 MK Moshe Ya’alon, recommending Gantz as prime minister, said that the party “could not give a hand to the “destruction of democracy where one person is making all the decisions, without oversight from the legislature… What happened tonight is a serious blow to democracy.”

President Reuven Rivlin in consultations with representatives of Blue and White at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Early Sunday morning, Ya’alon accused the prime minister of exploiting the coronavirus outbreak for “personal political needs,” suggesting that measures were being introduced in order to push off Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which was set to begin on Tuesday but was later delayed due to the virus outbreak.

“Whoever criticized us for warning we would turn into Erdogan’s Turkey should digest and internalize the cynical exploitation of the coronavirus, for personal political needs, by a defendant before his trial,” Ya’alon tweeted.

Referring to the fact that the party whose leader is tasked with forming a government is also potentially able to take control of the Knesset by electing a Knesset speaker, Ya’alon told Rivlin on Sunday, “I hope we will lead the legislature tomorrow.”

After the Joint List gave their answer, Shas leader Aryeh Deri told Rivlin that there is “no chance” of forming a minority government headed by Gantz backed by the Arab-led party, citing talks with “very important people” in the centrist party.

Deri recommended Netanyahu as the next prime minister, advocating efforts to form a broad unity government or a short-term emergency government advocated by Netanyahu, and pleading for the president to push those efforts.

The consultations are set to continue throughout the day with the representatives of all the parties set to meet with Rivlin by Sunday evening.

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