Warns: 'We must not approach the margins of dictatorship'

In shift, Gantz doesn’t rule out sitting in government with Netanyahu as PM

After his party vowed in 3 election campaigns not to join with premier due to his criminal indictments, centrist leader says wrong to ‘cling’ to past remarks during virus crisis

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz gives a televised statement in Ramat Gan on March 7 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz gives a televised statement in Ramat Gan on March 7 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz on Thursday would not rule out sitting in a coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reversing a prominent campaign promise of his centrist party amid reports he’s willing to join a unity government.

“At the moment all options need to be on the table. It wouldn’t be responsible on my part not to consider any alternative,” he told Channel 12 news.

Gantz, who was tasked Monday by President Reuven Rivlin with forming the next government, has repeatedly vowed not to sit in a government led by Netanyahu because of the criminal charges against the Likud leader. However, his stance appears to have softened amid the coronavirus crisis.

In the interview, Gantz said Israel needs a coalition to address two challenges facing the country: “to cope with the health, economic and social aspects of the coronavirus crisis and at the same time to preserve Israeli democracy.”

He added that though parties opposed to Netanyahu won a majority of seats in the March 2 elections, he could not ignore the current circumstances in which Israel finds itself.

“I hear that the citizens are interested in a solution to the political crisis,” he said. “For me, it’s of the utmost importance not to ask [me] about what I had said but mostly what needs to be done.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz, meeting in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)

While saying he was willing to help Netanyahu and Israel deal with the crisis in any way possible, Gantz stressed “Israeli democracy is critical,” amid accusations from Blue and White that Likud was undermining the country’s democratic institutions under the cover of the virus.

“There is no option for anything else besides democracy and we need to be very careful not to approach the margins of dictatorship,” he said.

Gantz also issued harsh criticism of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who closed the plenum Wednesday until next week amid disagreements between Blue and White and Likud over the formation of the Knesset’s so-called Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the formation and operation of the parliament.

“It can’t be that we need to turn to the High Court of Justice to jumpstart the Knesset,” Gantz said. “The Knesset speaker is acting in service of Netanyahu and hindering developments. I assume this is connected to politics.”

The interview was aired shortly after Blue and White denied reports that Gantz was willing to break up the party and join a unity government while going second in a rotation deal for the premiership.

“Negotiations with the Likud team were stopped tonight,” the party said in a statement.

“No meeting took place today and contrary to the reports, there are no agreements,” it added. “What we have seen throughout the day is cynical spin during a great and difficult crisis for Israeli citizens.”

But the Blue and White statement came as Hebrew media reports said Gantz was leaning toward joining a government led by Netanyahu, against the opinion of some senior Blue and White members.

According to Channel 12 news, Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi were in favor of a unity government, while the party’s No. 2 Yair Lapid and No. 3 Moshe Ya’alon were refusing, meaning Blue and White could end up splitting.

From left: Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi of the Blue and White party at its official campaign launch in Shefayim, July 14, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Also, a separate report from the Haaretz daily said Gantz was conditioning such a government on changing the law to enforce the rotation agreement. Such deals are currently voluntary, with no legal way to force a premier to resign at the end of the agreed term.

The sides also haven’t agreed on how long Netanyahu would serve as prime minister if the deal goes ahead, the report said. Netanyahu is demanding two years, but Gantz is said to demand less.

Netanyahu, whose Likud won 36 seats to Blue and White’s 33 in this month’s election, has demanded to serve two full years before being replaced by Blue and White leader Gantz, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday.

After the September election, when Blue and White received 33 seats to Likud’s 32, Netanyahu insisted on serving first, but only for a period of 6 months.

Blue and White was also demanding several top ministries as a condition of joining a Netanyahu-led government, according to Kan.

While the parties were reported to have made progress toward an agreement at the end of last week as the virus outbreak began to spike in Israel, goodwill has since fallen apart as Blue and White lawmakers have accused the prime minister and Likud of trying to neuter Israel’s democracy.

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