Israel Resilience leader Benny Gantz is aiming to remove Health Minister Yaakov Litzman from his post and ensure that former Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein does not return to his job, in his ongoing negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on an emergency unity government, Channel 12 reported Friday.
On Thursday, Gantz was sworn in as Knesset speaker with the support of Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, signaling an imminent unity deal between the two that would put a year-long political deadlock to rest. Under the deal, Gantz is supposed to succeed Netanyahu as prime minister in 18 months, will serve as either foreign or defense minister until then, and will bring about 15 or 16 members of his Israel Resilience faction into the government.
Gantz, who had promised repeatedly not to sit under Netanyahu as prime minister because of indictments in three criminal cases against him, said he was putting aside that vow given the twin crises Israel is facing with the pandemic and political paralysis.
His move immediately lead to the break up of the Gantz-ed Blue and White alliance and accusations from his erstwhile partners in that alliance, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, that he had “surrendered” to the prime minister, abandoned his promises, stolen Blue and White’s votes and “handed them to Netanyahu.”
Gantz hit back by saying he was acting in the wider national interest, and would seek a unity government that would put aside narrow considerations, tackle the pandemic, and bolster Israel’s democracy.
To that end, he is reportedly seeking to ensure that Litzman, who some allege has put the interests of the ultra-Orthodox community ahead of the general public in his handling of the fight against the pandemic, is ousted from the Health Ministry, the report said.
Litzman, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, has been a long-time head of the ministry, but has largely been shunted aside in the handling of the coronavirus crisis by Netanyahu and the director-general of the ministry, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov. Still, he reportedly pushed to delay stringent restrictions on public gatherings that would have affected observance of the Purim festival earlier this month, and fought bitterly against this week’s closing of synagogues.
The report said Gantz would likely try to replace Litzman with a technocrat and not a politician.
Gantz also reportedly aims to ensure that when he relinquishes the speaker’s chair to become a senior minister if a unity deal is sealed, Edelstein does not return to the post. A Likud MK, Edelstein resigned as speaker on Wednesday in a bid to evade a High Court order compelling him to hold a vote on his successor. Accusing the court of undemocratic meddling in Israel’s parliamentary affairs, Edelstein ignored the court order and resigned. He also shuttered the legislature and defied the Knesset’s legal adviser and the country’s attorney general in refusing to return and allow the vote to go ahead, sparking a mini-constitutional crisis.
Gantz, in his maiden speech as speaker on Thursday, accused Edelstein of “spitting in the face” of the court.
The TV report said it was not clear if Gantz would be able to achieve his goals, with Netanyahu having already made several major concessions to him and still needing to appease lawmakers in his own Likud party and his allies.
According to the reported deal taking shape, Gantz is set to partner with Netanyahu in a unity coalition, serving initially as foreign or defense minister and then taking over as prime minister in September or October 2021 — though many political analysts doubt that such a rotation will actually take place.
Channel 12 quotes sources close to Gantz as saying that even he was not completely confident that Netanyahu would honor the pact, but hoped he would. Netanyahu, for his part, has been telling confidants he will respect the deal, the TV said.
Gantz also believes that he has some leverage over Netanyahu while he remains Knesset speaker, in that he could still advance legislation that could disqualify a prime minister from serving while under indictment.
The deal also reportedly includes an agreement that Gantz’s deputy Gabi Ashkenazi will take the defense or foreign ministry portfolio — whichever Gantz turns down — while another Israel Resilience MK will be justice minister, possibly Chili Tropper.
Channel 12 said Gantz’s former partners blame Ashkenazi for engineering the unity government move and the break up of Blue and White.
The TV station’s political analyst Amnon Abramovich, without citing sources, said that Ashkenazi has an agreement with Netanyahu under which he will join the Likud party and receive the full support of the prime minister to succeed him.
It is unclear exactly how many lawmakers Gantz could take with him into the coalition, with some of his Israel Resilience lawmakers already balking.
Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, the first Druze woman elected to the Knesset, vowed earlier Friday she would not join Gantz in a coalition with Netanyahu.
“Leadership and honesty are measured in times of crisis. A leader does not betray his principles and voters,” she wrote. “I came to politics to replace the racist, divisive government of the Nation State Law, and not to be a partner in it.”
Channel 12 broadcast a poll indicating that a majority of Israelis, including a majority of Blue and White voters, supported Gantz’s decision to join forces with Netanyahu.
According to the poll of the general population, 61% supported the move, 30% were against and 9% had no opinion.
Of Blue and White supporters, 56% were in favor, 39% against and 5% had no opinion.
However, much of the public did not believe that Netanyahu would actually hand over power to Gantz in 18 months. Forty-six percent did not believe he would, 38% did believe he would, and 16% could not say.
The TV channel gave no participation numbers or margin of error for the poll.
Gantz on Friday defended his decision, saying he was “at peace” with the move, even though it ruptured the Blue and White alliance.
“I am more at peace today than ever,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
“I am at peace because I did what my nation needs,” he said, adding that he understood the hurt and anger of some of his supporters who saw the move as a betrayal.
“These are unusual times. Israel is in a state of emergency. Hundreds of thousands of families are hunkering down in their homes. There is a real sense of emergency in the face of a health threat that is taking human life and in the face the threat of economic devastation,” Gantz wrote.
“This is the time for leaders to choose what is right and put the lingering issues and personal scores aside,” he said explaining his decision to backtrack on his repeated election promise to never serve under Netanyahu so long as he is facing criminal charges.