In a bid to forge a centrist alliance robust enough to challenge four-time election winner Benjamin Netanyahu, the leaders of the two top-polling centrist parties, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, met for several hours of intensive unification talks on Wednesday.
The two leaders are reportedly stuck on who will lead the joint list, and how much of Lapid’s Yesh Atid’s platform the unified faction will adopt.
Lapid is said to be seeking a rotation, with one leader at the helm for the first two years of the 21st Knesset, and the second man taking charge for the next two, Channel 12 news reported.
If the joint party defeats Netanyahu, the two leaders would be exchanging more than titles half-way through the term; the head of the list would also be the serving prime minister.
Gantz, whose Israel Resilience party is polling well ahead of Lapid’s Yesh Atid if the two were to run separately, reportedly wants to stay at the top for the entire term.
If the two agree to a rotation, the party of the second-term leader — likely Lapid — would get a larger share of the joint list’s Knesset slots, according to unconfirmed reports from sources familiar with the talks who spoke with several Israeli media outlets on Wednesday.
The two leaders met for two and a half hours earlier Wednesday, at the home of Yesh Atid campaign manager Hillel Kobrinsky in Savyon, after which their advisers took over the negotiations. The leaders are expected to meet again at night, but only if their teams reach an agreement on key points of contention.
The decision to merge the lists must be made before 5 p.m. Thursday, the final legally-mandated deadline for registering each Knesset list that will run in the April 9 race.
Gantz presented his party’s Knesset slate on Tuesday night, and used the opportunity to announce his intention to call Lapid and propose an immediate meeting in order to join forces with Yesh Atid.
“As soon as the conference is over, I will call my friend Lapid, and I will propose to meet with him this evening. I will again propose to him to set all other considerations aside, and together we will put Israel before everything else,” Gantz said in his speech, which was marked by a scathing personal attack on Netanyahu.
Gantz and Lapid indeed ended up talking after the speech, and sources with knowledge of the negotiations were quoted by the Ynet news site as saying the conversation “went well.”
Polls have shown that a merger of both parties would become the biggest Knesset faction and have a better chance to challenge Netanyahu’s Likud.
But Yesh Atid has said it is waiting for clarifications on Israel Resilience’s views on a range of issues, including the nation-state law passed in the previous Knesset, religious freedom, and whether Gantz would join a Netanyahu-led government if a victorious Netanyahu were to offer him a senior post.
“You can’t weaken the opportunity for historic change due to a debate over job opportunities,” Gantz urged on Tuesday. “Let’s rise above [the differences], unite and win.”
Lapid responded to Gantz in a statement that read, “As I said [Monday] on stage [when presenting his own party’s Knesset candidates], we will leave no stone unturned, we will do everything to ensure we don’t miss a historic opportunity to replace this government.”
However, Yesh Atid sources were quoted by several news outlets as being more circumspect, saying: “Gantz’s offer needs to be checked to see whether it’s actually serious or if it’s just lip service to show he tried to join forces within the [centrist] bloc.”
Contrary to speculation in recent days, former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who helped bring the two parties to the table, will not be part of a joint list, according to reports Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, Israel Resilience’s separate talks with MK Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party, which were almost finalized in recent days, fell through Wednesday night, as the Gesher party announced Gantz’s talks with Lapid had effectively nullified the agreement between the two parties.
On Tuesday, Israel Resilience released its official slate for the Knesset, revealing the names of the top 30 candidates it hopes will lead the party to victory in April.
Six of the first 23 candidates on the list are from Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party, which agreed on a joint Knesset ticket with Israel Resilience last month. Only five of the top 20 are women.
As parties make their final maneuvers before closing their slates, the Ahi Yisraeli party, led by ultra-Orthodox Adina Bar-Shalom, is also putting out feelers to unite with Israel Resilience or other parties, Walla reported Tuesday.
Ahi Yisraeli said in a statement that it was preparing a slate and would run in the elections alone or after having united with another party.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.