Gantz: Netanyahu is now only obstacle to unity government

Lapid announces he’ll give up PM-rotation deal for sake of unity government

Accusing Netanyahu of pushing for 3rd elections, Blue and White No. 2 says ‘It’s far more important to me that there be unity in the country’; Liberman hails Lapid’s ‘noble step’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid at a faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, on October 03, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid at a faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, on October 03, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid announced Thursday that he was giving up his rotation deal with party leader Benny Gantz whereby they would share the premiership, in order to insure that he not constitute an obstacle to a unity government led by Gantz and including the Likud party.

Speaking at the Blue and White faction meeting in the Knesset before the swearing-in ceremony for the 22nd Knesset, Lapid said, “For the sake of a unity government I’m forgoing the rotation. It’s far more important to me that there be unity in the country; that there won’t be another election; that this country begins a healing process, mends the wounds, changes the national priorities.”

Lapid’s move came on a day of political drama, with MKs gathered at the Knesset for their swearing-in after the September 17 elections. Shortly before he made his speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party had announced that Netanyahu may hold leadership primaries, prompting his Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar to declare he is “ready” to challenge for the top Likud spot.

Lapid is regarded with particular hostility by Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, whose leaders have frequently cited the possibility of a prime minister Lapid as a core element of their opposition to a coalition partnership with Blue and White. Lapid has long battled to raise conscription levels in the ultra-Orthodox community. Gantz, who would have taken the first two years in a Gantz-Lapid government, is regarded as less hostile to ultra-Orthodox interests, but has indicated a preference for a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Avigdor Liberman, who is pushing for a Likud-Blue and White coalition along with his own Yisrael Beytenu party, praised Lapid’s decision to forgo a chance at being prime minister, calling it “an important and noble step.”

Liberman met earlier Thursday with Netanyahu, in unity talks that produced no breakthrough, and then sat for one-on-one talks in the Knesset with Lapid.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avidgor Liberman (L) talks with Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid in the cafeteria of the Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

In his remarks Thursday, Lapid accused Netanyahu of “trying everything to drag us to elections… One man with three indictments stands between us and a national unity government.”

“In that government there will be a rotation. Benny Gantz will be prime minister for the first two years. There’s no other option. We’re the largest party and Netanyahu is in the midst of his legal hearings,” he said. “We won’t sit in a government with a prime minister who has been indicted or is facing such serious charges.”

Blue and White leader Gantz, also addressing his party, said Netanyahu was now “the sole obstacle” to a unity government involving Blue and White and Likud, and that the broad platform of such a “liberal unity government” was agreed by the parties.

Israel, said Gantz, “needs a prime minister who can attend to its citizens’ needs, not his legal difficulties… a unity government not a immunity government.”

He charged that Netanyahu was “prepared to do anything to protect his own interests, even if that means dragging us to us to new elections.”

Directing his remarks at Netanyahu, he said he hoped the prime minister would be able to prove his innocence in the three graft cases he faces. “I don’t want to see a prime minister behind bars.” But until then, Gantz urged him, “Don’t bunker down in your post… We’ll take things from there… We’ll put Israel before everything else.”

Despite his legal woes — he is facing pending corruption charges in three cases — Netanyahu was tasked by Rivlin last week with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a bloc of 55 MKs, and was given 28 days to do so. Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties, but the 10 Arab MKs in that group would not join a Gantz-led coalition. Neither candidate has a clear path to a 61-strong Knesset majority without the other.

In his comments Thursday, Lapid said, “If in two years Netanyahu will complete the legal process and be cleared of all charges then there’s no problem, he can come back. I hope for him that’s what happens.”

He added, “There won’t be a rotation with three people. That’s not serious. Running a country is a serious matter.”

What was needed, Lapid said, was a unity government comprising Blue and White, Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and the Labor party.

The Likud party had accused Lapid of preventing any progress in unity talks with Blue and White due to an ostensible unwillingness to give up on sharing the premiership.

“Blue and White’s negotiating team canceled the meeting because Lapid caused Gantz to fold over the holiday, with the purpose of dragging the country to elections. Lapid doesn’t want a rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz but rather between him and Gantz,” a Likud statement said Wednesday after Blue and White canceled schedules talks between the two parties.

Likud was referring to the agreement between Gantz and Lapid, which would have seen the latter take over as prime minister after two years and eight months if Blue and White formed the next government. Blue and White has refrained from publicly commenting on the rotation deal since the coalition talks started.

Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet with Gantz Wednesday evening, but the centrist party canceled the summit late Tuesday, saying there were no signs that the premier was truly interested in reaching a power-sharing compromise.

Likud and Blue and White have accused each other of intransigence in the coalition talks and claimed that the other side was pushing the country toward an unprecedented third election in under a year.

Rivlin had suggested a unity government in which power would be equally divided and Netanyahu and Gantz would each serve two years as prime minister. Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

But the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.

If nothing changes in the party’s positions, Netanyahu is now expected to tell Rivlin that he is unable to form a majority government. This will likely lead to Gantz being given a chance to form a coalition.

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