Eyeing coalition with post-Netanyahu Likud, Blue and White says longtime PM lost

Centrist alliance calls on ruling party to ‘act in the national interest,’ as Yisrael Beytenu, projected to increase its power, calls for unity government

Supporters of the Blue and White party react as the exit polls are announced, September 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Supporters of the Blue and White party react as the exit polls are announced, September 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Members of the centrist Blue and White party on Tuesday evening reacted to exit polls showing it ahead of or on par with the ruling Likud party, declaring that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “lost” and his era was “over,” although at the party headquarters activists were careful not to celebrate before more reliable results came in.

Meanwhile, whoops of approval and applause broke out in the Yisrael Beytenu headquarters as all three initial projections showed the party and its leader, Avigdor Liberman, would likely play a key role in determining the makeup of the next coalition government.

Echoing its campaign pledge, Yisrael Beytenu officials said they intended to push for a unity government with Likud and Blue and White. Channels 12 and 13 showed Yisrael Beytenu winning eight seats in the next Knesset, while the Kan broadcaster projected it receiving 10. That is a significant boost for the right-wing secular party, which currently has five seats.

As voting ended in Tuesday’s Knesset elections, all three exit polls published by the main television channels showed Netanyahu’s bloc of supporters several seats short of the 61 needed to form a coalition, meaning that there would be no obvious winner in the race to the premiership.

The right-wing bloc — made up of Netanyahu’s Likud party, the religious right-wing Yamina and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism — was predicted to get 54 to 57 seats in the 120-member parliament. The center-left bloc along with Yisrael Beytenu was forecast to get 42-45, while the Arab parties increased their power to 11-13.

Netanyahu “lost,” a spokesperson for Blue and White number two Yair Lapid said, hinting that Likud should depose its longtime leader.

“Obviously it’s early and we have to wait for the real results. But if this is the picture, it’s clear that Netanyahu lost,” Yair Zivan said of the exit polls.

The Blue and White alliance, headed by Netanyahu’s main rival Benny Gantz, was predicted to be level or slightly ahead of Likud in all three exit polls, although Gantz’s chances of forming a coalition without Likud are slim.

“We have said all along that we want a unity government headed by Blue and White, with Likud and [Avigdor] Liberman, but without Netanyahu. That’s also what the majority of the Israeli public wants,” Zivan told The Times of Israel outside the centrist party’s campaign headquarter in Tel Aviv.

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz arrives to cast his ballot at a voting station in Rosh HaAyin, September 17, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Now it’s going to be up to Likud, whether they act in the national interest, or not,” he concluded. Asked what he meant by that, he said that was for Likud to decide.

Blue and White MK Yoaz Hendel similarly said “the Netanyahu era is over” and called for a unity government without the Likud head.

“Right now, the plan is to wait, be cautiously optimistic, wait for the final results and hope that we’re at a moment of change, a moment the nation is waiting for,” Melody Sucharewicz, a spokesperson for Gantz, told The Times of Israel.

Asked whether Gantz would consider a rotation deal with Netanyahu that would see Gantz serve first as prime minister, to be replaced in two years by the Likud leader, she replied: “Our goal is clear, and nothing has changed: to build a stable, secular national unity government, without Netanyahu. Tonight, we came one step closer to having a new leadership.”

Still, apparently applying the lesson they learned from the April 9 election night — during which exit polls that showed Blue and White ahead of Likud prompted party leader Gantz to prematurely declare victory — staffers and activists with the centrist party reacted with a whiff of skepticism to the release of the exit polls at 10 p.m.

At Blue and White’s election party in Tel Aviv, lawmakers and activists were not celebrating immediately after the exit polls were published. Rather, the mood in the near-empty hall was subdued, with Israeli pop music playing in the background. There were no flags there, no cheers, and few smiles on the faces of the party members.

The public was invited to the city’s Hangar 11 only starting at 1 a.m., and Gantz was not expected to address them before 2 a.m., when more reliable election results are in.

Meanwhile, Yisrael Beytenu’s number three candidate, Yevgeni Soba, told The Times of Israel at the party’s campaign headquarters in Jerusalem that the party intends to call for a unity government made up of itself, Blue and White, and Likud.

“We got a mandate for a broad national government,” Soba said, adding that the next government needs to be “without the Haredim, without the messianists,” in a reference to the ultra-Orthodox and the right-wing religious Zionist parties.

“This is the strategy, but tactically, I don’t know — maybe Liberman just made a deal with Netanyahu, maybe he made one with Gantz,” he said.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman tours the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv on election day, September 17, 2019 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Soba stressed that the actual results of the elections had yet to be released, but indicated that the party was pleased with the forecasts: “The results speak for themselves.”

The vote was the second in months, an unprecedented rerun election after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following a vote in April. It drew to a close a bitter campaign that saw Likud and Blue and White sling mud at each other.

After April’s elections, Liberman — whose party had been thought at the time to be among Netanyahu’s automatic backers — refused to join a government led by Netanyahu unless a bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for yeshiva students was passed as is, a demand flatly rejected by the premier’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. That impasse helped trigger the new elections.

After April’s vote, Netanyahu, who in July became Israel’s longest serving prime minister, came close to losing power when his Likud party along with its right-wing and religious allies failed to form a coalition. Rather than allow another candidate a shot at doing so, he opted for a second election by calling on the Knesset to dissolve itself.

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