Gantz, Lapid meet in last-ditch bid to unite against the right

Leaders of Israel Resilience and Yesh Atid speak overnight amid effort to reach elusive agreement on leadership of joint centrist ticket

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (L) and Israel Resilience party chief Benny Gantz. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90, Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (L) and Israel Resilience party chief Benny Gantz. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90, Hadas Parush/Flash90)

After presenting his Knesset slate for the upcoming elections on Tuesday night, Israel Resilience party chief Benny Gantz met Wednesday with fellow centrist leader Yair Lapid in a last-ditch effort to reach a merger deal with Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

Gantz, formally presenting his party’s slate for the coming elections, announced Tuesday 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 Prime Minister Benjamin 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” and that the two leaders would be meeting in the morning.

Ynet reported Wednesday afternoon that the meeting took place at the home of Yesh Atid campaign manager Hillel Kobrinsky in Savyon.

Parties have until a Thursday deadline to finalize their candidate list for the April 9 Knesset elections.

Israel Resilience party chief Benny Gantz speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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 negotiations between them have stalled over disagreements regarding the party leadership and the makeup of the unified election slate.

Yesh Atid has also claimed it is waiting for clarifications on Israel Resilience’s opinion on issues such as the nation-state law passed in the previous Knesset, religious freedom and the possibility of joining a Netanyahu-led government.

One of the main questions is whether Lapid will be willing to give up his demand for a leadership rotation between Gantz and himself as prime minister if they win. Gantz associates were quoted by Ynet as saying that “if the rotation demand isn’t an ultimatum, there will be a merger between Gantz and Lapid.”

“You can’t weaken the opportunity for historic change due to a debate over job opportunities,” Gantz himself urged on Tuesday. “Let’s rise above [the differences], unite and win.”

However, many analysts are doubtful that Lapid, who has been seeking the premiership for six years despite falling in polls recently, will agree to relinquish the top spot and become someone else’s No. 2.

Lapid officially responded to Gantz by saying in a statement, “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 the government.”

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks during an event hosted by the Movement for the Quality of Government, in Modi’in, on February 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

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’s really acted to join forces within the [centrist] bloc.”

With negotiations between the parties are ongoing, former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi is still “very much in the picture,” the Walla news site reported. Ashkenazi, who has been pushing for a merger, has promised to join a unified Knesset slate, giving it an additional boost.

Meanwhile, Israel Resilience was still conducting talks with Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party, after the negotiations seemed to stall on Tuesday.

Earlier 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.

Adina Bar-Shalom attends a Shas faction meeting at the Knesset on July 6, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90/File)

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 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.

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