Netanyahu agrees to meet PM-designate Gantz; other right, Orthodox leaders wait
55-member bloc loyal to Likud leader will hold off on direct negotiations with Blue and White; leaders of Joint List, Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor-Gesher agree to meetings
Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.
Blue and White’s Benny Gantz and Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu will meet in the coming days to discuss the possibility of forming a unity government, the parties said on Wednesday night, hours after the centrist leader was tasked with forming a government where the incumbent premier failed.
Likud confirmed a meeting would be held in the coming days but stressed that Netanyahu was negotiating on behalf of the 55-member bloc of right-wing and religious parties loyal to him, without whom he will not enter a coalition. Blue and White has previously rejected this negotiation position outright.
Immediately after receiving the mandate to form a government from President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday evening, Gantz got to work speaking with party leaders and inviting them to meet to negotiate their potential entry into the Blue and White-led coalition he hopes to establish.
But in the round of phone calls, Netanyahu’s allies also maintained they would only enter talks after Likud negotiators, who are representing the bloc, meet with their counterparts in Blue and White. Gantz had already invited representatives of Likud to a meeting.
In his speech on Wednesday evening, Gantz promised to build a government of national reconciliation and said he would invite Netanyahu and his Likud to be part of it.
Following the brief ceremony with Rivlin, Gantz immediately began phoning party leaders and inviting them to personally meet with him while also setting up meetings between his Blue and White negotiating team and other parties’ counterparts.
In similarly worded statements, Blue and White said that Gantz spoke with each of the leaders of various factions elected to the Knesset.
First was Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, followed by the head of the Agudat Yisrael faction in the United Torah Judaism party Yaakov Litzman. He then reached out to Labor chair Amir Peretz, head of the Degel Hatorah faction in UTJ Moshe Gafni, New Right chair Ayelet Shaked, Jewish Home chair Rafi Peretz, Democratic Union chair Nitzan Horowitz, Shas chair Aryeh Deri, New Right’s Naftali Bennett, National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich. He also spoke to Hadash leader Ayman Odeh, Ta’al leader Ahmad Tibi, and Ra’am chair Mansour Abbas of the Joint List alliance of Arab parties.
In the statements announcing the phone calls with Liberman, Amir Peretz, Horowitz and Netanyahu, Blue and White said that Gantz “stressed his goal to form a broad, liberal unity government.” The statements announcing the phone calls the with other leaders — all of whom are part of a bloc of 55 MKs who have vowed to only support Netanyahu as prime minister — omitted the phrase.
Liberman, Peretz, Horowitz, Tibi, Odeh and Abbas all agreed to meet with Gantz. In a statement, Odeh, the leader of the predominantly Arab Joint List party that previously ruled out joining a Gantz coalition, said “all options are on the table if we see a real alternative for peace and equality.”
While right-wing and ultra-Orthodox party leaders from those in the bloc of 55 have said they will negotiate entry into the government together, their responses to Gantz, at least as told by Blue and White, varied somewhat.
“Litzman stated that he is not interested in meeting since Likud represents his party as part of the right-wing bloc,” Blue and White said of the Agudat Yisrael head, while at the same time, Degel Hatorah head Gafni “asked to consult on the subject and to respond later.”
For Deri, Blue and White said, “The Shas chairman congratulated Gantz on receiving the mandate from the president and asked that they communicate following the meeting between the respective negotiating teams of Shas and Likud.”
“At the request of MK Shaked, communication between the two sides will be renewed following the upcoming negotiations meeting between Likud and Blue and White,” another statement said of the New Right leader, while MK [Rafi] Peretz asked “to consult on the subject and to respond later.”
Blue and White later announced that its negotiating team would be meeting with the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu’s teams on Sunday and those from Labor and the Democratic Union on Tuesday.
Gantz, like Netanyahu who failed before him, now has 28 days to try and form a government, though the prime minister-designate is seen as being no more likely to manage the task.
Accepting the presidential mandate from Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Gantz promised he would form a “liberal unity government” and invite all political parties for talks on its goals. His coalition would be open to all except racists and advocates of violence, he said.
With Gantz’s appointment, Netanyahu, for the first time in his 10 years of consecutive rule as prime minister, saw his exclusive control over Israel’s political system wrested from his hands.
“I will work for all of the people of Israel. A government that Israel is desperate for. We will form a government that will push for peace and will know to deal definitively with every enemy,” said the former IDF chief of staff.
“I will do everything I can to create a government of national healing that will unite the tribes,” Gantz stressed, adding that “we are here to represent everyone, the Haredim, with whom we must sit and talk as brothers, the Arab citizens, our Druze brothers, as everyone else.”
“I turn to Netanyahu tonight and say, I have known you for many years, I wish you to come out clean and pure from the legal challenges you are facing,” Gantz added.
Rivlin told Gantz: “It is possible to form a government. There is no justification for forcing another election cycle, the third, on the Israeli public. If no government is formed, the Israeli public are the ones who will pay the price.”
In a possible reference to Gantz’s previous promise not to sit in a government with Netanyahu or the ultra-Orthodox parties, Rivlin said, “As long as the boycotts and delegitimization of groups in Israeli society, as long as there is no real will to come to compromise and agreement, there will not be a government.
Netanyahu was initially tasked by Rivlin with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a bloc of 55 MKs of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers after September’s inconclusive elections (Likud: 32; Shas: 9; United Torah Judaism: 7 and Yamina: 7).
Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties (Blue and White: 33; Labor-Gesher: 6; Democratic Camp: 5; and 10 out of 13 MKs from the mainly Arab Joint List).
If Gantz fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, which ends November 20, a majority of lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset could try to endorse any Knesset member — including Netanyahu and Gantz — as prime minister. A leader has never before been elected during that time period in Israel. If that fails, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a third election in under a year.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.