Blue and White leader Benny Gantz on Thursday dismissed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of a unity government that includes all the religious right-wing parties, insisting that the next coalition should have himself as prime minister, not Netanyahu, and be committed to liberal policies on religious issues.
Earlier in the day, after the leaders of all the parties in the right-wing religious bloc signed a document pledging to recommend Netanyahu as the next prime minister and vowing to enter a coalition only as a single unit, the premier called on Gantz to join a government that includes those parties, pressuring him to drop his demand for a “secular” unity government with Likud.
At a faction meeting Thursday afternoon, Gantz responded to the proposal: “The nation went to the ballots and made a clear choice — the nation chose unity. Blue and White won the elections, Blue and White is the biggest party. I intend to form a broad unity government headed by me, which would reflect the people’s choice and our basic promises to the public and our priorities.”
Hitting back at Netanyahu’s offer, Gantz said: “We won’t succumb to any imposition. To form a unity government, one doesn’t come with political blocs and spin but with seriousness and responsibility.”
Speaking immediately after Gantz, the party’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, took a more combative approach.
“Netanyahu is trying to drag the country to a third election,” he charged. “He’s simply unwilling to accept the results of the election. One person is preventing the formation of a liberal unity government. One person.
“That’s the aim of the bloc of extortionists and extremists he created yesterday,” he said. “That’s the aim of all the spin he’s throwing around in the last few hours. The public didn’t give him their support, so he’s trying to replace the public.
“If Netanyahu steps aside, we’ll have a unity government,” Lapid added. “A government with all those who believe we need civil marriage and public transportation on Shabbat. Without indictments and without corruption. And in light of what happened now, a government that will amend the election law so that it won’t be possible to drag us into elections every three months.
“That’s what the majority of the public wants. That’s what they voted for. That’s why we’re the biggest party in Israel.”
Blue and White has repeatedly ruled out sitting in a government under Netanyahu, who is expected to face a criminal indictment in the coming months, pending a hearing. His political opponents warn that should he be named prime minister again, he would use the position to secure himself immunity from prosecution.
Referring to the pledge signed by Likud and the religious right-wing parties, a Gantz associate quoted by Hebrew-language media said: “Even they don’t trust Netanyahu to honor that agreement.”
The document was signed during a meeting of right-wing party heads Thursday morning by Netanyahu; United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman; Shas leader Aryeh Deri; and Yamina MKs Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich.
While not enough to form a coalition on its own, Netanyahu is hoping that President Reuven Rivlin will treat his 55-seat bloc as a single party and therefore agree to task Netanyahu with forming the next government.
In the document, the right-wing leaders promised that their parties “will conduct coalition negotiations jointly and will enter any government only together. No party will hold any separate negotiations and won’t enter any government without all the rest of the parties.”
Crucially, the document declares: “Our candidate for prime minister is Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Immediately after the meeting with right-wing party leaders, Netanyahu called on Gantz to agree to a broad unity government that would rest upon on the bloc the prime minister has positioned himself to lead.
Netanyahu urged Gantz to meet with him one-on-one Thursday at “any time, any hour” to form the coalition by the end of the day.
Later, after Gantz rebuffed his proposal of a unity government with the religious right, Netanyahu said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the former’s “refusal as of now to accept my offer to meet.
“The president called for unity, and without a meeting between the leaders of the two biggest parties a unity government cannot be formed,” the prime minister added in a statement.
“Israel needs a unity government that is as broad as possible — not repeat elections and definitely not a government that relies on the support of anti-Zionist parties. Gantz, my offer for a meeting still stands,” he said. “That is what the public expects of us.”
With almost all votes counted, the Orthodox/right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu has 55 seats, the centrist/left bloc led by Gantz has 44, and Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman holds the balance of power with eight. The predominantly Arab Joint List, which has not said whether it will actively back Gantz, has 13 seats.