Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz said Thursday that he would consider supporting a deal in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is allowed to avoid prison in exchange for an agreement to retire from politics, a proposal backed earlier in the day by Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman.
Netanyahu is facing criminal charges in three corruption cases and is thought to be seeking Knesset support for immunity from prosecution.
“We will consider that — it would be good to prevent the shameful image of a prime minister in jail,” Gantz said at a faction meeting.
Kicking off Blue and White’s campaign after new elections — the third in 11 months — were officially called Wednesday night for March 2, Gantz claimed that Netanyahu had never sought a unity government and only looked for ways to trick Gantz’s party into signing an inferior deal.
“I extended my hand for reconciliation, you tried to bite it,” Gantz said. “You have gotten used to lying and deceiving, it is stronger than you. I tried to make concessions to achieve a breakthrough and you laid traps at every turn.”
He repeated past accusations over Netanyahu refusing to give up negotiating on behalf of his entire 55-strong bloc of right-wing religious supporters and refusing to go second in a leadership rotation agreement, and said he was unwilling to discuss basic policy guidelines for a potential unity government.
“I spoke of and wanted unity; you wanted immunity,” he added. “That is the real deal you put on the table. Fake unity in exchange for immunity.”
The party’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, also spoke at the faction meeting and lambasted the premier: “I am telling everyone in this room, look out for yourselves. When the prime minister all the time publishes incitement to violence, there will eventually be crazy people who listen to him.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party responded in a statement, saying Gantz had “made every effort to thwart a unity government and drag the country to elections. Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to accept every concession to form a unity government.”
Leaders of left-wing parties attacked Gantz over his willingness to support pardoning Netanyahu in exchange for his resignation.
“I don’t want to see a prime minister in prison any more than you,” Democratic Camp chair Nitzan Horowitz said, addressing Gantz in a statement. “But for that we need a prime minister who isn’t corrupt.”
Horowitz vowed: “There isn’t and there won’t be any parliamentary immunity for Netanyahu. In Israel, everyone is equal before the law. If Netanyahu is convicted of the serious offenses of which he is accused, he’ll have to serve his sentence.”
Labor-Gesher chair Amir Peretz sounded a similar tone.
“No one wants to see a prime minister go to prison. But every citizen in Israel must be equal before the law. You can’t buy and sell the position of prime minister,” Peretz said.
“Netanyahu can strike a plea deal right now,” he added, “instead of continuing to hunker down in [the PM’s residence on Jerusalem’s] Balfour [Street].”
Israelis are set to go back to the polls on March 2 for a third time in under a year after two successive rounds of coalition negotiations failed to produce a government.
Earlier in the day, Liberman told the Ynet news site that he backed “a deal [for the premier] to retire with dignity,” claiming there was “a sense of fatigue” with Netanyahu in the Knesset and a feeling that “he’s become a burden.”
He added: “No one wants to see him in prison, but no one wants him in politics either. And everyone is truly prepared to give him the opportunity to exit with dignity.”
He said if there were an initiative for a presidential pardon or legislative action to end Netanyahu’s prosecution in exchange for the prime minister stepping down, “I’m sure there will be wall-to-wall support. I think everyone here feels the man contributed quite a bit and should be let go with proper respect, but no one wants to see him [here] anymore.”
Liberman’s statement was the latest indication that Netanyahu would likely face trouble in gaining his backing to secure a parliamentary majority for immunity, should his right-wing religious bloc fall short of the needed 61 seats after elections in March.
Liberman has hinted at opposition to immunity for Netanyahu during coalition negotiations that ended Wednesday, but has refused to make an explicit statement, possibly indicating that he was dangling the prospect for leverage in talks to form a government.
The hawkish Liberman, seen as a kingmaker, refused to join a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox coalition headed by Netanyahu, and has been blamed by Likud for the political morass.
Instead, he demanded the formation of a unity government between Likud and centrist rival Blue and White, but Likud conditioned it on Netanyahu staying on for a number of months in a power-sharing rotation, and Blue and White said the charges against Netanyahu disqualified him from being prime minister for any time.
Netanyahu has not yet announced whether he intends to seek immunity from prosecution, but is widely expected to do so.
On Friday Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu is set to ask the Knesset later this month for immunity. Netanyahu has until December 21 to do so — 30 days after the charges against him were announced by prosecutors.
Because of the political deadlock, however, the immunity issue may not be discussed by the Knesset for months, delaying the formal filing of the charges against Netanyahu.
The Knesset House Committee, which weighs immunity requests, has been nonfunctional amid the political impasse resulting from two inconclusive elections.
Eyal Yinon, the Knesset’s top legal adviser, ruled last week that the indictment of Netanyahu must be delayed until the House Committee decides on whether to extend him immunity. With the Knesset dissolved, the earliest the committee can meet is after a new parliament is sworn in in mid-March.
Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and has accused police and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup” against him.