Gantz, Liberman open to emergency unity government, but demand say in waging war

National Unity head says he’ll back premier if given influence over security matters; Yisrael Beytenu demands commitment to toppling Hamas

Then-defense minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a consultation during Hamas rocket fire at Israel and IDF counterstrikes, May 11, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO / File)
Then-defense minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a consultation during Hamas rocket fire at Israel and IDF counterstrikes, May 11, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO / File)

The heads of two opposition parties said Sunday they were open to the idea of temporarily joining an emergency unity government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the aftermath of a shocking assault on the country by the Hamas terror group, after discussions were held Saturday on forming an emergency government.

National Unity party leader and former defense minister Benny Gantz said he was willing to join the government on condition that his party be given real influence in directing the war against the Palestinian terror group in Gaza. Israel launched the war following an unprecedented infiltration by Hamas terrorists that resulted in over 700 dead, over 2,200 wounded and more than 100 kidnapped and believed to be held hostage in the Strip, as well as barrages of rockets of Israeli towns.

In a televised address Sunday night, the former defense minister said he had told the prime minister on Saturday that he would be willing to join the government “with the intention of establishing a war cabinet that will direct the battlefront against Gaza and other fronts.”

Gantz, who previously served as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, appeared to be hesitating over Netanyahu’s offer on Saturday for him to join the government, along with Opposition Leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, and was insistent that he and senior party members play a major role in shaping Israel’s response to the attack before committing to join a Netanyahu-led cabinet again.

“At this time, when the best of our sons and daughters are enlisting in the reserves, when we are eulogizing hundreds of dead, when we are all praying for the well-being of thousands of wounded, kidnapped, and missing, we must take responsibility and enlist as leaders as well,” Gantz said.

“If we are given a real opportunity to influence and participate in the management of the war, we will be there until the end,” he added.

Gantz led his political party, then dubbed Blue and White, into a short-lived Netanyahu-led power-sharing government in May 2020 to tackle the COVID-19 epidemic. The deal was to see him become prime minister after 18 months, but the government collapsed before that could happen after Netanyahu refused to approve the state budget, using a loophole in the coalition deal that allowed him to avoid handing Gantz the premiership.

Gants was reported to say that if the pandemic was serious enough to push him into an unlikely alliance with rival Netanyahu, then certainly a war would be.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on July 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman also said Sunday he would join the current government. But he conditioned his support on Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi publicly announcing that the government intends to “eliminate the Hamas terror organization and all its terrorist leaders,” and will not suffice with anything less.

“I understand that we have other challenges, including in the north against Hezbollah, captives in the Gaza Strip, the intentional community and other challenges,” said Liberman, also a former defense minister, in a statement to the press.

“Our priorities must be clear — the elimination of Hamas and the heads of Hamas… Only in this way can we restore security to residents of the south and the rest of Israel’s citizens, and bring back our captives and those missing,” he added.

An IDF tank outside the entrance to the southern city of Sderot, October 8, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

It was unclear if Liberman had been asked to join the government, and a Likud spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Liberman is a former Netanyahu ally, but he became a bitter rival in 2019, now regularly accusing the Likud party leader of caving to his Haredi coalition partners and questioning the premier’s mental fitness to serve.

Netanyahu has proposed that the opposition Yesh Atid and National Unity parties join what would become a national unity government, but the sides have yet to agree to terms and publicly accept.

President Isaac Herzog speaks to the nation, October 8, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)

In a televised address Sunday evening, President Isaac Herzog urged national unity.

“Let us keep this spirit of heroism and this togetherness. It is our most powerful weapon,” he said.

Netanyahu has relied on far-right and Haredi political allies for a ruling coalition, with the center-left and some fellow right-wing parties staunchly opposed to backing him during more peaceful times, in part due to his legal woes.

Some observers have pointed to unprecedented societal divisions wrought by the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary and attendant protests as having given Hamas the impression that Israel was weakened and ripe for attack.

On Saturday, Netanyahu, Lapid and Gantz met to discuss forming an emergency government, with the Likud party saying that such a government would have the same format as the Levi Eshkol government that then-opposition leader Menachem Begin joined before the Six Day War in 1967.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid in a statement to the media, October 7, 2023. (Video screenshot)

Gantz told Netanyahu that regardless of any decision over an emergency government, the current government would receive his full backing “for any responsible and determined security action.”

Lapid announced Saturday evening that he would be willing to join “a reduced, professional, emergency government” but that it would be impossible to manage a war with “the extreme and dysfunctional composition of the current cabinet,” essentially calling on the prime minister to remove the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties from the government in order to bring Yesh Atid into the coalition, a demand that Likud has rejected.

Lapid and his center-left Yesh Atid party have been harsh critics of Netanyahu and the prime minister’s right-wing, far-right, and religious coalition, and have called to end that government in light of its moves to weaken judicial checks on political power, as well as having put ultranationalist extremists in sensitive security roles.

Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hamas and its sponsor Iran have called Israel weak in recent months, in light of Israel’s domestic turmoil and concerns about IDF readiness caused by fights over the judicial overhaul.

Both Lapid and Gantz have previously lambasted Netanyahu for forming a government with “extremists” and previously eschewed the idea of a unity government that included them. Amid furtive negotiations to ameliorate Israel’s judicial crisis, a struggle over power division that has captured the collective national consciousness for the past 10 months, Gantz in September reiterated that he would not join a Netanyahu government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement on October 7, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (Screengrab)

Shortly after Hamas launched its assault on Saturday morning, catching the country unaware, as it celebrated the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah, Lapid and Gantz issued a statement alongside other opposition party heads in support of Israel’s security forces.

“At times like these, there is no opposition or coalition in Israel. We will give full backing to the security forces for a harsh response against terrorism and its proxies,” Lapid said then.

Both Lapid and Gantz, as well as Liberman, previously served in governments with Netanyahu. The three one-time political allies have since become rivals to the prime minister, whom they have called untrustworthy and corrupt.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: