Fragile Gaza ceasefire signals resumption of Gantz-Netanyahu political battle
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Fragile Gaza ceasefire signals resumption of Gantz-Netanyahu political battle

Still not quite accepting president’s unity plan, Blue and White leader claims PM ‘charging toward elections,’ does not really want to negotiate; Netanyahu holds his fire, for now

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

The Thursday morning ceasefire reached between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in the Gaza Strip will likely, eventually, put an end to the latest intense cross-border fighting. But it also threatened to reignite a very different battle being fought on the political front lines, one that has seen a lull in hostilities during the escalation in the south.

After Israel announced Tuesday morning that it had killed a commander in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in a targeted strike, and as hundreds of rockets were launched at Israeli communities and the IDF carried out several rounds of strikes on targets in Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz took a break from directly attacking each other over the ongoing stalled coalition negotiations.

The flareup in Gaza came as Gantz was trying to put together a government, after Netanyahu failed to do so following elections in September. Lacking a governing majority with their respective political allies, the prime minister and the prime minister-designate have been urged — notably by President Reuven Rivlin and by would-be kingmaker Avigdor Liberman — to form a unity government, but are at loggerheads over the makeup of such a government and who would head it.

Blue and White and Likud have regularly blamed each other for the lack of progress in negotiations and sought to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to third elections.

The fighting in Gaza, however, by spurring a sense of national unity and a ceasefire in fiery exchanges between Gantz and Netanyahu, appeared to have raised the chances of a unity government being formed, and not only by limiting the possibility of Gantz forming a minority government backed by the Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab parties.

Israeli tanks are pictured stationed near the border with the Gaza Strip on November 13, 2019. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

Gantz’s first public statement following Thursday morning’s fragile ceasefire deal with Islamic Jihad, delivered alongside and after a meeting with Yisrael Beytenu chair Liberman — a meeting that was originally scheduled to take place on Tuesday, but was postponed due to the security situation — made clear that the political combat is far from over.

“We do not want to see elections and will make every effort until the last minute [to avoid them],” Gantz said. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is set on holding the third election inside a year, and does not really want to negotiate over forming a unity government, he charged.

“To the best of my judgment, Netanyahu is keeping the bloc and is charging toward elections,” Gantz said, referring to the Likud leader’s 55-MK strong group of right-wing and religious MKs, who have insisted on negotiating together.

On Rivlin’s unity plan, which would allow Netanyahu to serve as prime minister first in a Likud-Blue and White unity coalition but temporarily stand aside if indicted in the corruption cases he faces, Gantz said he is “prepared to consider any option that will uphold my principles in terms of indictment.” Gantz has thus far said he would not serve under a prime minister facing grave suspicions of criminal wrongdoing.

Gantz’s party has previously called for Netanyahu to step down as head of Likud due to the possible indictments pending against him in three corruption cases. A Blue and White spokesperson would not clarify if Gantz was now willing to serve under Netanyahu in accordance with Rivlin’s plan.

When tasking Netanyahu with forming a government at the end of September (before giving the mandate to Gantz after the prime minister failed), Rivlin said that he had proposed making a legal change to the position of “interim prime minister” that would grant the officeholder “full power” in the case of the prime minister not being able to carry out his duties.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Such a change could theoretically allow Netanyahu to take a leave of absence if he is formally charged in the trio of graft cases currently pending against him, and enable Gantz to avoid serving in a government with a prime minister who is under indictment. At the same time, Rivlin also proposed lengthening the period for which a prime minister could take leave without surrendering his job beyond the current 100-day maximum.

Liberman has demanded Blue and White fully accept the plan, which, although Rivlin didn’t explicitly say it, would also see Netanyahu serve as prime minister first.

Speaking after Gantz on Thursday, Liberman hinted at disagreements within the Blue and White leadership, saying “What is missing for me is a clear announcement from all the leaders of Blue and White that they are accepting the president’s plan.”

Liberman, referring to both sides’ responses to his proposal, under which Gantz would accept Rivlin’s unity framework, and Netanyahu would give up on his 55-strong bloc, said that, “From Netanyahu we heard a clear ‘no’ — he will not accept the full plan as I proposed. Here [from Gantz] I didn’t hear no but I also didn’t hear ‘yes’ in a positive way. It’s sorely missing.”

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz, left, and Yisrael Beytenu party leader MK Avigdor Liberman at the Kfar Maccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan, November 14, 2019. (Elad Malka)

On Saturday night, Liberman presented an ultimatum to Netanyahu and Gantz, saying that if one of them does not accept the tough concessions needed in order to form a coalition together, he will back the candidate who does compromise and will renege on his pledge to only support a national unity government.

But with the option of a minority government supported from the outside by the Joint List now likely off the table, Blue and White’s negotiating power over Netanyahu has decreased significantly. Gantz had never publicly confirmed any such option, Liberman opposed it, and Arab MKs from the Joint List shrank it still further in bitterly opposing the IDF’s Tuesday targeted killing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror chief Baha Abu al-Ata, accusing the government of war crimes and acting for narrow political motives.

The prime minister therefore comes out of the Gaza mini-war politically stronger, regardless of any criticism over the government’s handling of the conflict.

While still managing the ongoing security situation alongside newly appointed Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday, Netanyahu did not immediately respond to Gantz’s accusation that he wants third elections. But in this ongoing political battle, he is unlikely to hold his fire for long.

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