Gantz admits joining Netanyahu unpopular, but says it’s needed for virus fight

In first address after signing coalition deal with prime minister he had vowed to oust, Blue and White chair says they both would have preferred a government without each other

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz in his first public address after signing a deal to form a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 21, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)
Blue and White chief Benny Gantz in his first public address after signing a deal to form a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 21, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on Tuesday defended his decision to sign a coalition agreement with Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he himself would have preferred a “different government,” but breaking bread with his ex-rival was the responsible thing to do given the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.

The comments were the first Gantz made publicly since signing the deal with Netanyahu on Monday night, and came moments after his ex-ally Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party excoriated him for switching sides and accused him of perpetuating “the worst act of fraud in the history of this country.”

Gantz said he understood the criticism of the deal, which will leave Netanyahu in power for 18 months despite criminal charges against him, but claimed that he had “put the common good before our personal good.”

Under the terms of the deal, which will end over a year of political deadlock during which Israel has not had a permanent government, Gantz will become prime minister in 18 months. Until then, he will serve as defense minister and have veto power over most legislative and policy matters. While he had campaigned on a promise not to sit in a government under Netanyahu, Gantz said the about-face was necessitated by the coronavirus crisis.

Israel in recent months stood “before the greatest crisis to health, economy and society in recent decades” while it also faced its greatest political crisis, Gantz said in a televised address made after the end of Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day.

“Some wanted to continue to move toward more and more elections and perhaps score political points… I and my colleagues could not stand by,” he said in a tacit criticism of his former political allies who chose not to join him in the new government and who have railed against his decision to sit in a government headed by Netanyahu.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign their unity government agreement on April 20, 2020. (GPO)

Israel has been led by a caretaker government since December 2018, when the 20th Knesset dissolved. Since then, three consecutive elections have failed to yield a new government, creating an unprecedented political crisis.

Gantz campaigned in the three consecutive elections over the past year on replacing Netanyahu, largely due to the graft charges against the latter.

But on Tuesday he said it would be “unthinkable” and “the height of irresponsiblity” to allow fourth elections to take place in a matter of months, as Israel still battles with the virus outbreak and the economic fallout.

“We chose to safeguard democracy and fight coronavirus and its consequences. We had to pull up our sleeves, leave our comfort zone of just making statements,” he said. “We thought it was better to win against coronavirus than to win on social media… We chose a national cause over a party cause,” Gantz said.

After the most recent election, Gantz saw his Blue and White alliance unravel as the Yesh Atid and Telem factions broke off over his election as Knesset speaker on March 26, a position he won with the backing of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc, in a move designed to open coalition talks with Likud.

Lapid, who will soon be heading the Knesset opposition to the planned unity coalition, harshly criticized the Blue and White leader for partnering with Netanyahu in ensuring that ongoing corruption suspicions against the prime minister would never now be probed, undermining Israeli democracy and the rule of law, capitulating to ultra-Orthodox coercion and numerous other acts of betrayal and hypocrisy.

“When something is built on crooked foundations, it will apart. This government will fall apart. Sooner than you think,” Lapid said.

Yesh Atid-Telem leader Yair Lapid gives a statement to the press on April 21, 2020. (Elad Guttman/Yesh Atid-Telem)

Gantz, while saying that his entry into the coalition would “ensure that the judicial system is functioning properly and freely, performs its function and that the rule of law is maintained,” admitted that it was not the government he had hoped for.

“We say, honestly, that both the prime minister and I would have preferred to form different government that would fully and completely fulfill the vision that each of us offered to the public. The truth is that for two years, and for three election campaigns, the public decided otherwise” he said.

Saying that reaching an agreement was a “huge achievement,” Gantz also conceded that many were not happy. “I embrace those who are angry. I respect those who are disappointed,” he said.

The final agreement dovetails with most of Netanyahu’s demands, including with regard to the annexation of parts of the West Bank, a process that it says can begin in July 2020, and over which Gantz did not secure a veto.

One main bone of contention in the talks was the makeup and mechanics of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which installs judges, with Netanyahu — who has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption, including bribery — demanding veto power over nominations.

Under the agreement reached Monday night, Likud ensured a right-wing majority on the panel, counting Blue and White’s MK Zvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary under Netanyahu. Though a right-wing conservative who is unlikely to back judicial activism, Hauser has also been critical of attacks on the courts and is considered by Gantz and his allies to be a defender of the judiciary’s independence.

Meanwhile Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn is set to be appointed justice minister, replacing the firebrand Amir Ohana of Likud who had made a habit of attacking the courts and the state prosecution.

The cabinet will include 32 ministers at first and then swell to 36, with 16 deputy ministers, as soon as the coronavirus crisis is deemed to have ended, in what will be the largest cabinet by far in Israel’s history.

Addressing criticism of the size of the emerging government, the largest in Israeli history, Gantz also admitted: “I would have preferred a slimmer government… and at least as far as I’m concerned I will do my best to minimize the number of positions in my bloc.”

The coalition agreement features several complex clauses designed to insure that the prime ministership is indeed handed over as agreed — with provisions intended to prevent Netanyahu maneuvering to avoid transferring the job of prime minister to Gantz — some of which will require new or amended legislation. If Netanyahu dissolves parliament in the first 18 months, the deal indicates, Gantz would take over as prime minister for a protracted interim period before elections.

Similarly, the agreement features clauses designed to ensure that if the High Court of Justice rules in the coming six months that Netanyahu cannot serve as prime minister because of the indictments against him, the Knesset would dissolve, and new elections would be held, with Gantz serving as prime minister during the interim period.

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