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Gantz declines to commit to supporting Lapid for PM

Liberman says he’ll back head of largest party — other than Netanyahu — for PM

Yisrael Beytenu head signals he could recommend Yair Lapid for the premiership after the national vote on March 23

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yisrael Beytenu Chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman visits at the Assuta hospital in Ashdod on February 23, 2021 (Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu Chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman visits at the Assuta hospital in Ashdod on February 23, 2021 (Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Sunday said he’ll recommend that the leader of the largest party, apart from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, form the next government after the elections later this month.

Liberman made the comment at Channel 12’s annual Influencer’s Conference, effectively signaling he could back Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid as prime minister.

Lapid is currently polling in second place at 20 seats, well ahead of New Hope and Yamina. Netanyahu’s Likud is polling in first place, around 29 seats, but lacks a clear path to forming a government.

Following the election, the president decides which candidate will be tasked with assembling the coalition based on the recommendations of all political parties.

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz refused earlier on Sunday to commit to recommending Lapid, his former No. 2 and the current de facto head of the center-left bloc, to form the next coalition.

Also speaking at Channel 12’s Influencers Conference, Gantz said he would recommend “anyone who can replace Netanyahu,” not ruling out Lapid, New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar or Yamina head Naftali Bennett.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaking at Channel 12’s Influencers Conference on March 7, 2021. (Sindel/Flash90)

Asked if he’d sleep well at night if Lapid is premier, Gantz said, “I’ll sleep peacefully with anyone who is not Netanyahu.”

Lapid, speaking after Gantz, told the conference that he was not concerned about declarations made before the election by Sa’ar and Bennett that they would not serve in a government led by him.

Lapid claimed the two would be willing to join his coalition, even if it is backed from the outside by the majority Arab Joint List.

In the previous three elections, Yesh Atid ran on a joint slate with Gantz’s Israel Resilience party, under the Blue and White moniker. The party broke apart when Gantz decided to enter a coalition with Netanyahu in May 2020, citing the need to prevent a fourth consecutive election by forming a unity government that could tackle the health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Gantz kept the name.

Lapid is now polling at around 20 Knesset seats while Gantz is projected to win 4-5.

Yair Lapid (left) and Benny Gantz speak to supporters in Tel Aviv, on February 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Blue and White chairman vowed on Sunday that this time he has no plans to serve alongside Netanyahu after the March 23 national election. “You can fool me once,” he declared.

Asked if he was concerned that people in his party could desert him after the new election to join Netanyahu, Gantz said that those who wanted to make personal arrangements “have already done so. Whoever stays — is loyal to me.”

According to a Channel 12 poll released just before Gantz spoke at the conference, Blue and White would win five seats if the election were held today, a remarkable rebuke for the man who in previous elections ran neck and neck with Netanyahu.

According to the poll, Netanyahu’s Likud party would get 29 seats, down from its current 36 seats. Yesh Atid was predicted to be the second-largest party with 20 seats, while New Hope and Yamina were tied for third with 12.

The Joint List scored 9; Shas 8; United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Betyenu and Labor 7 apiece; Blue and White came next with 5, followed by Religious Zionism with 4.

Repeating projections from a number of recent polls, the left-wing Meretz party did not make it past the electoral threshold.

Responding to the poll, Gantz refrained from calling on Meretz to drop out of the race, but said that Lapid should have done more to make sure the left-wing slate merged with Labor.

Speaking at the conference after Gantz, Labor chair Merav Michaeli dismissed concerns that Meretz will not cross the threshold, thereby ending up helping Netanyahu gain a majority.

“I believe they will cross in the end,” she said, adding that if anyone should be dropping out, it is Gantz.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli speaks to press after casting her vote in the Labor primaries, in Tel Aviv on February 1, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Michaeli claimed Gantz would once again agree to serve with Netanyahu and should quit now as he had “destroyed the center-left bloc” after the last election by breaking his promise to voters not to serve under the Likud leader.

Despite repeated calls from others in the center-left to quit, as well as mass desertions from Blue and White, Gantz has insisted he will plow ahead.

He has warned that if he fails to enter the next Knesset, Netanyahu may fire him and his ministers before a new government is established and take far-reaching steps to cripple the justice system and hinder his trial on criminal charges.

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