Gantz ups pressure on Netanyahu as coalition teeters on brink of collapse

Blue and White head instructs party to advance contentious laws without backing of Likud in move that could bring down government; PM: ‘We’ll vote against elections, and for unity’

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid growing speculation Israelis will soon find themselves at the ballot box for the fourth time in under two years, Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered his Blue and White party on Monday to prepare proposals for a number of contentious laws that do not have coalition backing, in a move that could bring down the government.

The Blue and White announcement came two days before a planned Knesset vote of no confidence in the government. It said Gantz had instructed the party to put forward three legislative proposals: “The Basic Law: Equality,” which Gantz said “aimed to enshrine the right to equality and the prohibition of discrimination”; “the surrogacy law,” which would “evenly expand the circle of those entitled to surrogacy, expand the circle of women who can serve as surrogates and regulate the possibility of surrogacy outside Israel”; and “The Basic Law: The Declaration of Independence,” which would require judges to “interpret all Israeli legislation, including other Basic Laws, in light of the Declaration of Independence as a constitutional document.”

Following the announcement, the Likud party said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would give a “special statement” on the possibility of early elections, which TV stations covered live, anticipating political drama. Speaking briefly at the start of his Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu instead merely said that his party would not support efforts to disband the Knesset immediately, and would vote this week “against new elections, and for the unity of the people of Israel.”

Blue and White responded by saying in a statement that “the public is done with buying Netanyahu’s lies. If there were no trial, there would be a budget.” That was a reference to Netanyahu’s corruption trial and the continued delay in approving a new state budget.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a staunch ally of Netanyahu’s Likud, slammed Blue and White for putting forward the law bills and said the party and Gantz “have decided to dissolve the government and go to elections” in a move that “signals a severe political distress.”

Shas leader Aryeh Deri earlier this year offered a personal guarantee on primetime TV that Netanyahu would honor the coalition deal and that Gantz would become prime minister. Earlier this month, he appeared to disavow that guarantee.

Bringing the Blue and White proposals to the Knesset without specific agreement from Likud violates a clause in the coalition agreements signed between the two parties, but seems to be an effort to call Netanyahu’s bluff.

On Thursday Netanyahu said, “When agreements are not respected on the part of Blue and White, there is no doubt that we are on the way to elections.

“If we see a different approach from the Blue and White side and cooperation within the government, instead of a government within a government, we can continue to work together. If not, everyone can understand that this will lead to elections,” the prime minister said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony welcoming the first commercial flydubai flight to Israel, at Ben Gurion Airport, November 26, 2020 (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

Under the coalition deal between the Likud party, led by Netanyahu, and Blue and White, the two agreed to pass a budget running through 2021. Netanyahu, however, is now insisting on separate budgets for 2020 and 2021, with a failure to pass a budget allowing him to avoid handing the premiership over to Gantz — as the agreement also requires — and instead go to elections.

If the budget issue is not resolved by late December, early elections would automatically be called, the fourth in two years.

Frustrated by the deadlock, Gantz said earlier this month that he had instructed his party to gather together “all of the relevant bills that will advance equality, fight corruption and other values that are important to us.”

Responding to Gantz’s announcement, Avigdor Liberman, chair of the right-wing opposition Yisrael Beytenu party, told his faction meeting on Monday that the legislative proposals were “nothing but a smokescreen.”

“Gantz does not really intend to promote the laws, he is interested in media noise. Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that he mentioned these laws precisely in the week when a law was proposed to dissolve the Knesset?” Liberman said.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, speaking at the Yesh Atid-Telem party faction meeting, instead urged Gantz to back his proposal for dissolving the Knesset and calling new elections, which is slated to be voted on Wednesday.

“In 48 hours we can bring to an end the worst government in the history of the country. In 48 hours we’ll vote on a law to disperse the Knesset,” Lapid said.

Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 30, 2020. (Yesh Atid)

He called on Blue and White, which he ran with during three election campaigns but split from over Gantz’s decision to join a Netanyahu-led government, to stop being “accomplices” of the prime minister.

“You had good intentions, it didn’t work. Now it’s time to make amends,” Lapid said. “You’re not sitting in a unity government but in a bloated, corrupt government that’s causing incredible damage to the Israeli economy. Infection rates are increasing again… We need a government that will work for the citizens of Israel.”

Science Minister Izhar Shay from Blue and White said on Thursday that there was a “good chance” his party would vote in favor of the motion of no confidence in the government, toppling the coalition and setting the country formally on the path to new elections.

Gantz has refused to say if Blue and White will support the bill. His party has been reportedly weighing putting forward its own bill to disperse the Knesset to avoid handing Yesh Atid credit for the move. Lapid’s bill would likely fail without Blue and White’s support.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked has said that her right-wing religious party would support Lapid’s bill to disband the Knesset, with the government appearing to be teetering on the brink of collapse anyway.

Shaked said last week that her party was now “a leadership alternative” to Likud, and said people were tired of “the failing parties currently running the country.” Yamina leader Naftali Bennett “is able, worthy and needs to be the next prime minister,” she declared.

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