Gantz asks to meet party heads to form government, but rightist chairs refuse

After Rivlin taps Blue and White leader to cobble together coalition, centrist alliance leader tells counterparts that he’s seeking to form broadest coalition possible

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, during an elections campaign event in Petah Tikva on March 13, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, during an elections campaign event in Petah Tikva on March 13, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz phoned the leaders of most parties in the Knesset on Monday as he sought to hit the ground running upon receiving the mandate from President Reuven Rivlin to form the government. However, he was given a cold shoulder from the three religious and right-wing parties, whose chairmen refused to meet him.

Aryeh Deri and Yaakov Litzman, who chair the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties respectively, turned down Gantz’s request to sit down and work toward forming a government. According to a Blue and White statement, Deri told Gantz that he would let himself be represented by the “bloc,” a reference to the right-wing-religious bloc that consisted of 55 MKs after the September elections, when it stonewalled the centrist alliance by being only willing to negotiate as one and only willing to serve in a government under Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That bloc of Likud, UTJ, Shas and Yamina is now three MKs larger, but still short of a 61-member majority — the number of recommendations that Gantz received from the Blue and White, Labor-Gesher-Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu and Joint List parties on Sunday, giving him the first opportunity to form a government.

Also rejecting a meeting with Gantz was Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett, who conditioned such a sit-down on the Blue and White leader denouncing the support he received from the Joint List, who Bennett claimed are “supporters of terror.”

Leading candidates in the March 2020 national elections. Clockwise from top left: Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit); Bezalel Smotrich, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett (Yamina); Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu); Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism); Aryeh Deri (Shas); Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud); Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid (Blue and White); Amir Peretz, Orly Levy-Abekasis and Nitzan Horowitz (Labor-Gesher-Meretz); and Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh (Joint List) (Flash 90)

More warm support appeared to have been received from Labor-Gesher-Meretz chairman Amir Peretz and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, whom Gantz spoke with before arriving at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Monday to be tapped with forming the government.

The only parties left off the list of phone calls made by the Blue and White chairman on Monday were Likud and the Joint List, despite the latter party giving Gantz all 15 of its recommendations a day earlier. Joint List officials, however, said they have been in contact with Gantz in recent days. Gantz and Netanyahu met at the President’s Residence on Sunday evening as Rivlin sought to convince the parties to form a unity government.

Gantz, upon receiving the mandate to form a government from Rivlin on Monday, said he would strive to cobble together a coalition “within days.”

He specified that the government he would form would “protect the interests of the residents of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] and the Arab citizens of Israel, of the residents of the periphery and those in the center.”

“A government that I’ll lead will help Israeli society recover from the coronavirus, as well as the virus of schism and hatred,” he continued.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz with forming a government in a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Gantz then appealed to Netanyahu, who ran a blistering campaign against the Blue and White leader over his his willingness to cooperate with the majority-Arab Joint List party.

Avoiding a handshake metaphor in the social-distancing days of the coronavirus, Gantz said, “I extend my elbows to all the elected factions in the Knesset, including Benjamin Netanyahu, and urge them to put aside the devastating verbal weapons and baseless hatred” in order to join him.

“I’ve always wanted [a] unity [government],” Gantz continued, “unity that comes not at the expense of Israeli democratic and state values.”

The remark appeared to be a shot at Netanyahu, who has been accused of using the coronavirus to avoid standing trial on corruption charges. The opening of that hearing had been slated for Tuesday, but at 1 a.m. on Sunday, the justice minister instituted a “state of emergency” over the court system that led to the delay of Netanyahu’s trial until May 24.

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