Gantz appears to open, then abruptly closes, door to government with Netanyahu

After seeming to endorse coalition with PM, Blue and White head says he misheard question, insists he wants to replace the premier

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks to reporters at the Knesset as his party submits its electoral slate to the Central Elections Committee on August 1, 2019. (Flash90)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks to reporters at the Knesset as his party submits its electoral slate to the Central Elections Committee on August 1, 2019. (Flash90)

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on Thursday appeared to open the door to a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the elections in September, then hurriedly denied that intention, insisting he was set on replacing the premier.

“We will call for a unity government and an agreement immediately after the elections,” Gantz told reporters in the Knesset, as Blue and White officially registered its slate with the Central Elections Committee before Thursday night’s deadline.

Asked whether he would be to open joining to a unity government with Netanyahu following the rollout of the US peace plan, Gantz appeared to reply in the affirmative.

“We declared that Israel is before everything and that anything that is good for Israel before everything, we’ll support,” Gantz said.

But a few minutes later, after his remarks made headlines, he scrambled to deliver a second statement to the press, insisting that he had misunderstood the question and would not serve in the same government as the prime minister.

“I don’t hear well in my right ear,” Gantz said. “I came to replace Netanyahu and not to sit with him.”

Despite the clarification, the center-left Labor party laid into Gantz for not ruling out a joint coalition with Netanyahu, releasing a video of its leader Amir Peretz calling Gantz’s Blue and White a “massive bluff.”

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman at a campaign event for his party in Tel Aviv on July 30, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz’s comments come as Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman has been calling for a unity government between the ruling Likud party and Blue and White after the elections. Liberman has said he will recommend as prime minister whichever head of a major party supports such a move.

Neither Likud nor Blue and White is currently forecasted to have sufficient support without Yisrael Beytenu to form a ruling majority after the September 17 vote, positioning Liberman as the coalition kingmaker.

Likud has thus far dismissed the idea of a unity government, and has declared it will seek a coalition with right-wing and religious parties.

As parties submitted their electoral slates, Joint (Arab) List chairman Aymen Odeh said that if the conditions were right, he would “seriously consider” joining a government headed by Gantz, but said that scenario is unlikely.

“I don’t think that Gantz is ready,” Odeh told The Times of Israel, as he and other leaders of the alliance registered for the elections. “He would rather form a national unity government than what we want. But if he turns to us and he is going in the right direction of peace and equality, we will listen.”

A spokesperson for the Joint List later claimed Odeh was expressing openness for general cooperation with the Blue and White leader, not joining him in government.

Also Thursday, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party dismissed out of hand joining a government led by Gantz.

Shas MK Yoav Ben Tzur speaks to reporters at the Knesset as his party submits its electoral slate to the Central Elections Committee on August 1, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“It’s not even a relevant question, as it’s not going to happen,” Shas MK Yoav Ben Tzur, who presented the party’s slate, said.

Shas and United Torah Judaism, another ultra-Orthodox party, have objected to the presence in Blue and White of Yair Lapid, who has championed legislation to increase military enlistment of seminary students.

Lapid, who merged his Yesh Atid party with Gantz’s Israel Resilience to form Blue and White ahead of the previous elections in April, is set to take over as prime minister from Gantz during the term as part of a rotation deal, if Blue and White forms the next government.

The September rerun of the elections was precipitated by Liberman’s refusal to join a Netanyahu-led government unless an ultra-Orthodox conscription bill he backs was passed without changes, a demand rejected by the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Without Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu was one seat short of a majority and, rather than have another candidate be tapped by President Reuven Rivlin to form a government, successfully pushed for the Knesset to dissolve itself and call fresh elections.

The electoral ticket submitted by Blue and White on Thursday was almost identical to the one that competed in April’s elections, with only changes made to the order of candidates beyond number 30 on the slate.

The slate was presented by MK Yoaz Hendel from the Telem faction within Blue and White, MK Orna Barbivai from Yesh Atid, and MK Orit Farkash Hacohen from Israel Resilience.

After filing the slate, Hendel said, “We are happy to be here on the one hand, but on the other hand, sad that it comes at the expense of billions of shekels out of the pockets of Israeli citizens for unnecessary elections.”

Farkash Hacohen described the slate as “varied, wide-ranging and incredibly representative” and said “it has not changed since last time and neither has the leadership because are committed together to bringing about a real change.”

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