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Gantz’s National Unity party says it will go to opposition, with Likud win projected

After meeting of three top leaders, party warns of ‘extremist elements’ in the right-religious government Netanyahu is expected to form

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

The leaders of the new National Unity party at the party launch on Sunday night, August 14, 2022, in Kfar Maccabiah, from left to right: Gadi Eisenkot, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. (Elad Malka)
The leaders of the new National Unity party at the party launch on Sunday night, August 14, 2022, in Kfar Maccabiah, from left to right: Gadi Eisenkot, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. (Elad Malka)

With final results from Tuesday’s Knesset election not yet announced, Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s centrist National Unity party said Wednesday it would sit in the opposition in the wake of what is projected to be a decisive victory for the right wing and religious bloc led by Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu.

The party’s statement came following a meeting by its leaders Gantz, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and former Israel Defense Forces chief Gadi Eisenkot. It appeared to quell speculation that the party may negotiate on joining a Netanyahu-led coalition in order to broaden and moderate it.

National Unity said in its statement that “Israel faces great challenges, among them a government reliant upon extremist elements,” a reference to Netanyahu’s far-right allies in Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit.

“We respect the decision of the voters, and after the formation of the government, we will serve as a responsible and level-headed opposition as we continue to build National Unity as a governing alternative,” read the statement.

Netanyahu is projected to return to the premiership, leading far-right Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit and Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism in a coalition that is currently expected to garner a 62-65 seat majority in the next Knesset. Pulling a modest 11-12 seats in Israel’s 120-lawmaker Knesset in major network exit polls, National Unity is poised to be the fourth largest faction in the Knesset.

Final results are expected Thursday.

National Unity party leaders (from L) Gadi Eisenkot, Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar meet on November 2, 2022 (National Unity)

National Unity itself is a big tent party, combining politicians from the right and center and repackaging them as a centrist, responsible governance platform. Part of what unifies the party is its distrust of Netanyahu. Gantz was previously burned by Netanyahu in their failed 2020 unity government, and Sa’ar is an ally-turned-rival who left Likud after unsuccessfully trying to unseat Netanyahu as its leader in 2019.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, said early on Wednesday morning he’d wait for final results, in the face of early indications of a rightward swing.

Later on Wednesday, Lapid withdrew from a scheduled appearance at next week’s COP27 climate conference in Egypt. The Prime Minister’s Office released a Wednesday statement saying that President Isaac Herzog would represent Israel in his stead.

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses his supporters after first exit poll results for the Israeli Parliamentary election at his party’s headquarters in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Even if the Likud-led bloc secures a majority in the final results, it will be some time before a government is sworn in. Herzog will have a week from receiving the final results to consult party heads and select a candidate to attempt to form a government — presumably Netanyahu.

Then, parties will engage in coalition negotiations to firm up the allocation of ministries, appointments, budgets, and other resources in order to cement their pact to rule as a coalition.

This process can be short, but generally takes several weeks.

Otzma Yehudit’s Ben Gvir has already said that he plans to demand the ministry overseeing police and internal security, while Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich has appeared to angle for the defense, finance, or justice ministries.

Likud has previously said it wants to keep the defense, finance, and foreign ministries within its party, as the portfolios are considered among the government’s most senior.

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