Lapid: I trusted Gantz, but he stole our votes and handed them to Netanyahu
'We promised not to sit with extremists and extortionists'

Lapid: I trusted Gantz, but he stole our votes and handed them to Netanyahu

Announcing breakoff from former partner, chairs of Yesh Atid and Telem factions slam his ‘disappointing decision’ to ‘crawl’ into government with PM

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

Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2020. (Elad Gutman/Blue and White)
Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2020. (Elad Gutman/Blue and White)

Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, leaders of the Yesh Atid and Telem factions in Blue and White, slammed Benny Gantz’s decision to enter a government with longtime foe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night, saying the Blue and White leader had abandoned his principles by “crawling” into a coalition of “extremists and extortionists.

Lapid said Gantz had betrayed Blue and White’s voters, stolen their votes and handed them to Netanyahu. Despite his claims, Gantz was not entering a unity government, but had simply “surrendered” to Netanyahu, Lapid charged.

“The coronavirus crisis doesn’t give us the right or permission to abandon our values,” Lapid fumed. “We promised not to sit under a prime minister with three criminal indictments. We promised not to sit in a coalition of extremists and extortionists. We said we wouldn’t allow anyone to undermine Israel’s democracy. And on this week of all weeks, in which the attacks on the justice system were at their worst, a prize is given to those who disobey the law. A prize to criminality. You can’t crawl into a government like that and tell us you did it for the good of the country.”

In a dramatic about-face, Gantz was elected Knesset speaker earlier Thursday evening as part of an emerging unity deal, shedding half of his centrist alliance in order to enter a government with Netanyahu.

According to the reported deal taking shape, Gantz is set to partner with Netanyahu in a unity coalition, serving initially as foreign or defense minister and then taking over as prime minister in September 2021, though many political analysts doubt that such a rotation will actually take place. Gantz is expected to resign the speakership after a unity government is formed, to be replaced by a Likud MK, potentially even the previous Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, who resigned from the position Wednesday in order to avoid having to carry out a Supreme Court order he disagreed with.

Gantz’s decision to join forces with Netanyahu led to the swift collapse of Blue and White, with the party’s Nos. 2 and 3, Lapid and Ya’alon, rejecting the move.

Their Yesh Atid and Telem factions, respectively, both filed a formal request to break away from Blue and White late on Thursday afternoon, leaving only Gantz’s Israel Resilience party to join forces with Netanyahu’s Likud. Lapid had reportedly told Gantz he preferred that Israel go to fourth elections than see Blue and White partner with Netanyahu.

Announcing in a Thursday night press conference that they would continue to lead the party in the opposition, both Lapid and Ya’alon said they were deeply disappointed in their former political partner.

“We formed Blue and White to offer an alternative to the Israeli people. A decent, honest, values-driven centrist party. The election results proved that Israel needed that alternative like we need air to breathe. We wanted to bring about change, to bring about hope, to start a new path,” Lapid said.

“Benny Gantz decided today to break apart Blue and White in order to crawl into Netanyahu’s government. It’s a disappointing decision. What’s being formed today isn’t a unity government or an emergency government. It’s another Netanyahu government. Benny Gantz surrendered without a fight and crawled into Netanyahu’s government. He joined the Haredi-extremist bloc,” the Yesh Atid chair said.

Lapid said that he ran together with Gantz because he “looked me in the eye and said we would never sit in this bad government. I believed him. Together with us over a million Blue and White voters marched from street to street and from bridge to bridge. Good, honest Israelis. People who serve in the IDF, pay their taxes, obey the law. They feel betrayed today, and justifiably so. Their votes were stolen and given as a gift to Netanyahu.”

Speaking after Lapid, Ya’alon, who served as defense minister when Gantz was IDF chief of staff, said that “tonight is a sad evening.”

“We didn’t see our motto, ‘Israel before all else,’ as an empty motto. We joined forces, created a political power. Gantz’s decision to crawl into Netanyahu’s government, which represents everything that we oppose, is disappointing to say the very least,” he said.

Moshe Ya’alon holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2020. (Elad Gutman/Blue and White)

The Blue and White party came together in 2019, formed of three constituent parts: Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which provided much of the party’s infrastructure having already run in several elections, and Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Ya’alon’s Telem, which were newcomers on Israel’s political scene.

In his first speech as Knesset speaker, immediately following the vote, Gantz promised to “examine and promote” a national unity government, but said that he would not betray his voters. He also cited the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic, saying that Israel needed such an “emergency” unity government to battle it.

“Democracy has won,” he claimed, referencing the bitter battle he fought over the past week with his predecessor as speaker, Edelstein, who tried to prevent a vote on the speakership. MK Meir Cohen, from Yesh Atid, was the party’s initial candidate to take the job but withdrew on Thursday afternoon after Gantz presented his own candidacy.

Gantz promised to “build and strengthen democracy.”

“We will regulate its system of checks and balances, stop the unbridled attacks from irresponsible ministers, remove ideas of replacing the court and the prosecution, and work to end the rifts between us,” he said in pointed comments.

“I promise to all Israelis to do the right thing at this time. The Knesset will work for the people and citizens — all of them,” he said.

Benny Gantz at the Knesset on March 26, 2020, before being elected Knesset speaker. (Knesset)

The coalition is likely to constitute 78-79 MKs — Likud, Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Labor, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism — according to Channel 12 (although other reports indicated Labor’s inclusion is not certain). That would leave Yesh Atid, Telem, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and the mainly Arab Joint List in the opposition. However, various other fluctuations are deemed possible, with Telem’s Hendel and Hauser, for instance, said to be weighing joining the coalition if this is feasible under Knesset laws.

The unity deal took shape as the Knesset met to vote on a new speaker, following Edelstein’s resignation on Wednesday.

Gantz offered himself as the sole candidate for the job, which he is set to hold only for a brief period while the terms of the unity coalition are finalized. He would then serve as either foreign or defense minister for the first 18 months of the emergency unity government, under the terms of the reported deal, before succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister.

It was not clear what post Netanyahu would fill at that stage, should it come. The prime minister has been indicted in three corruption cases, in a trial that was supposed to begin last week but has been postponed to May amid the coronavirus crisis. By law, a lawmaker under indictment is barred from serving as a minister.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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