Gantz to former allies: Coronavirus challenge bigger than politicking

After shock move to likely join Netanyahu, former Blue and White leader tells Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon that leading Israel into fourth elections not an option while virus rages

Then-Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Yair Lapid at a faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Then-Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Yair Lapid at a faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel Resilience party leader Benny Gantz told his erstwhile partners early Friday that he was splitting off from them, seemingly to forge a unity government with bitter rival Benjamin Netanyahu, in order to save the nation from another round of elections during “such a challenging time,” as his shock decision continued to reverberate through the political sphere.

The statement capped a stunning 24 hours that saw Gantz shed his partners in Blue and White and appear set to join Netanyahu in a unity government, ending a year of political deadlock and keeping the indicted Likud leader as prime minister for at least the next year and a half, while essentially dismantling Gantz’s former party.

“At the end of the day, I believe we must not drag Israel to a fourth election at such a challenging time, when the country is dealing with the coronavirus crisis and its fallout. We disagree on that point,” Gantz wrote in a tweet addressed to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Telem leader Moshe Ya’alon, who had been his No. 2 and No.3 in Blue and White.

Gantz thanked both of them for their partnership over the last year.

“In my eyes, you will always be patriots who love the country and act on behalf of it wherever they are,” he wrote.

Gantz had come under vociferous criticism from his former partners for his apparent about-face, following a year in which he vowed Blue and White would not sit in a government under a prime minister who had been indicted.

“The coronavirus crisis doesn’t give us the right or permission to abandon our values,” Lapid fumed hours earlier. “We promised not to sit under a prime minister with three criminal indictments. We promised not to sit in a coalition of extremists and extortionists. We said we wouldn’t allow anyone to undermine Israel’s democracy. And on this week of all weeks, in which the attacks on the justice system were at their worst, a prize is given to those who disobey the law. A prize to criminality. You can’t crawl into a government like that and tell us you did it for the good of the country.”

Ya’alon, who served as defense minister under Netanyahu when Gantz was IDF chief, said the former Blue and White leader’s “decision to crawl into Netanyahu’s government, which represents everything that we oppose, is disappointing to say the very least.”

From right to left: Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi visit Ashkelon on September 11, 2019. (Flash90)

The Blue and White party came together in 2019, formed of three constituent parts: Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which provided much of the party’s infrastructure having already run in several elections, and Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Ya’alon’s Telem, which were newcomers on Israel’s political scene.

Gantz was handed the mandate to form a government earlier this month after three rounds of seemingly inconclusive elections, but appeared to have no clear path to forging a stable coalition. Both he and Netanyahu, who has run Israel for over a decade but is facing criminal charges, had publicly touted the need for a national emergency unity government in light of the coronavirus crisis, but neither had appeared to make any meaningful steps toward that goal before a Wednesday night phone call between the two.

According to reports in recent weeks, Gantz, a political neophyte, had supported compromising to join Netanyahu, but was adamantly opposed by Lapid and Ya’alon, both of whom had previously served as ministers under Netanyahu before falling out with him.

Gantz’s statement did not include Gabi Ashkenazi, the fourth part of Blue and White’s party’s so-called leadership cockpit. Ashkenazi is set to join Gantz in the partnership with Netanyahu, with the two former IDF chiefs reportedly to serve as the foreign and defense ministers.

Gantz was elected Knesset speaker earlier Thursday evening as part of the emerging unity deal, which came a day after the former Knesset speaker appeared to spark a constitutional crisis by refusing to comply with a court order to hold a vote for his replacement in order to block Blue and White from advancing legislation.

Benny Gantz at the Knesset on March 26, 2020, after being elected Knesset speaker (screenshot)

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 2021, though many political analysts doubt that such a rotation will actually take place.

Gantz’s decision to join forces with Netanyahu led to the swift collapse of Blue and White, with Lapid and Ya’alon rejecting the move.

Their Yesh Atid and Telem factions filed a formal request to break away from Blue and White late on Thursday afternoon, leaving only Gantz’s Israel Resilience party to join forces with Netanyahu’s Likud. Lapid had reportedly told Gantz he preferred that Israel go to fourth elections than see Blue and White partner with Netanyahu.

Gantz is expected to resign the speakership after a unity government is formed, to be replaced by a Likud MK, potentially even the previous Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, who resigned from the position Wednesday in order to avoid having to carry out a Supreme Court order he disagreed with.

In his first speech as Knesset speaker, immediately following the vote, Gantz promised to “examine and promote” a national unity government, but said that he would not betray his voters. He also cited the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic, saying that Israel needed such an “emergency” unity government to battle it.

“Democracy has won,” he claimed, referencing the bitter battle he fought over the past week with Edelstein. MK Meir Cohen, from Yesh Atid, was the party’s initial candidate to take the job but withdrew on Thursday afternoon after Gantz presented his own candidacy.

Gantz promised to “build and strengthen democracy.”

“We will regulate its system of checks and balances, stop the unbridled attacks from irresponsible ministers, remove ideas of replacing the court and the prosecution, and work to end the rifts between us,” he said in pointed comments.

“I promise to all Israelis to do the right thing at this time. The Knesset will work for the people and citizens — all of them,” he said.

Magen David Adom ambulance workers wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus bring a woman suspected having the coronavirus to the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, March 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As of Thursday evening, Israel had over 2,600 cases of the novel coronavirus, including eight people who succumbed to the disease wracking the globe. Netanyahu’s caretaker government had single-handedly managed the crisis, placing ever-tightening restrictions on movement in a bid to stem the spread of the virus, while blocking Blue and White attempts to impose Knesset oversight over the moves.

The emerging coalition is likely to constitute 78-79 MKs — Likud, Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Labor, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism — according to Channel 12 (although Labor’s inclusion is reported elsewhere to be far from certain). That would leave Yesh Atid, Telem, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and the mainly Arab Joint List in the opposition. However, various other fluctuations are deemed possible, with Telem’s Hendel and Hauser, for instance, said to be weighing joining the coalition if they are permitted to do so under Knesset laws.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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