Gantz urges Netanyahu to forgo immunity bid as sides bicker over unity efforts

With clock ticking down, Blue and White party chief says he and PM can still be ‘partners’ for talks; Likud shoots down offer, calls on Liberman to negotiate

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee discussion at the Knesset, December 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee discussion at the Knesset, December 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz on Monday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to forgo a bid to seek immunity in the Knesset, amid 11th-hour efforts to forge an elusive power-sharing agreement.

Likud quickly rejected the offer, drawing rebuke from Blue and White, as the sides traded barbs ahead of a looming deadline to reach a unity deal or face a dreaded third round of elections.

“Netanyahu needs to place Israel before Netanyahu and take action. I call on the prime minister again, and repeat what I told your representatives from the first day of negotiations: if you give up on immunity, we’re partners to start talking,” Gantz said.

Netanyahu, who has been charged in a trio of corruption cases, has not yet announced whether he we will seek immunity from prosecution, but is widely expected to do so.

Likud officials shot down Gantz’s offer, saying seeking immunity was “an explicit right given by the legislature,” Channel 12 news reported.

Lawmakers have until Wednesday night to agree to nominate a Knesset member to attempt to put together as government before being forced to dissolve the parliament and call an unprecedented third round of elections for March 2.

Neither Blue and White nor Likud has enough allies to form a government without the other or the support of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, but the two parties have failed to make progress on unity efforts.

In a statement released by his office, Netanyahu accused Blue and White’s leaders of “refusals and empty spins.”

“I call on Avigdor Liberman to enter into accelerated negotiations in the 48 hours left to establish a broad, strong unity government for Israel,” Netanyahu said.

Liberman, a right-wing secularist who holds eight of the Knesset’s 120 seats, has refused to enter a coalition that doesn’t include both Likud and Blue and White, though Likud has continued to woo him.

Earlier Monday, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said that he would give up on a rotation agreement for the premiership with Gantz as he sought to bolster the party’s chances in the increasingly likely upcoming election.

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz (R) and No. 2 Yair Lapid at a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Lapid, who headed the centrist Yesh Atid faction which joined forces with Gantz ahead of April’s election, is seen by some as a more polarizing figure than the former IDF chief Gantz, and rival party Likud had used the prospect of him as prime minister as a rallying point in campaigns.

“If there are elections, we’ve decided that this time there won’t be a rotation agreement. We will go together, all of us, a large and united Blue and White behind Benny Gantz, our candidate for prime minister,” Lapid said at the opening of a Blue and White faction meeting in the Knesset.

The Prime Minister’s Office statement dismissed the announcement as  “transparent tricks, which are designed to divert attention from your refusal to form a broad, national, unity government that would arrange a defense alliance with the US and annex wide swaths of Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.

In recent days, Netanyahu has repeatedly called for advancing a mutual defense pact with the US, citing a supportive US administration, a highly controversial move opposed by many in the Israeli defense establishment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 1, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Netanyahu in September vowed that if reelected he would immediately annex the Jordan Valley, a swath of land linking the West Bank to Jordan that Israel views as a vital security asset, in what was widely seen as a bid to attract support from right-wing voters.

On November 18, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to pave the way for an Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, and possibly other parts of the West Bank, when he declared that the administration would no longer consider Israeli settlements as necessarily illegal.

Blue and White said in response to the premier’s statement: “The only thing that is transparent is Netanyahu’s desire to lead Israel to an additional round of elections with the sole purpose of seeking immunity. Netanyahu, set Israel free [from yourself].”

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman MK Avigdor Liberman speaks with the media during a faction meeting in the Knesset, December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Both Gantz and Netanyahu have said they seek a unity deal, but observers see a third round of elections as an increasingly likely outcome. On Monday, the parties agreed that if called, the elections would be held on March 2.

Both have blamed the other for the impasse.

Netanyahu has refused to step down and insisted on being prime minister for several months at the start of a rotational agreement, but Gantz has refused to sit in a government under Netanyahu until the premier’s legal status is cleared up.

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