Lapid says Gantz will remain Blue and White leader if new elections held

Main opposition party’s no. 2 quashes speculation he is vying to replace the party chair if Knesset dissolves

Benny Gantz, left, and Yair Lapid of the newly-formed Blue and White alliance give a joint a statement to the press in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Benny Gantz, left, and Yair Lapid of the newly-formed Blue and White alliance give a joint a statement to the press in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Blue and White no. 2 Yair Lapid said Wednesday there would be no change in the party leadership should new elections be called after midnight, quashing speculation of a split in the Knesset’s main opposition party.

Lapid had hinted at changes in the Blue and White’s lineup if fresh elections were held, in remarks quoted by the Ynet news site Tuesday.

“I can’t promise to continue being the second on the party list,” he said. “We haven’t discussed this issue yet. We will sit down and have a conversation if necessary.”

The remarks fueled speculation in the media that Lapid might make a play for the party leadership should an unprecedented second election in a year be held.

According to Ynet, his remarks were met with “rebuke” from Gantz’s associates in Blue and White.

On Wednesday, Lapid appeared to walk back the implication, saying in follow-up remarks that he would remain second-in-command behind Gantz.

Head of the Blue White party Benny Gantz (2L) and his top allies Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid greet supporters following the release of exit polls at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 9, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“If there is another election, Benny Gantz will be the head of Blue and White and will be our candidate for prime minister,” Lapid said.

In the April 9 elections, the party leaders ran under a rotation agreement which would have seen Gantz serve as prime minister for the first two years and eight months, and Lapid take over for the remainder of the term, had they won the election.

Lapid’s remarks came as the Knesset convened to debate the bill to dissolve parliament and hold new elections, amid an ongoing impasse that has prevented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from cobbling together a coalition.

Netanyahu faces a Wednesday night deadline to form a government. He has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners, and progress has stalled amid an impasse between the secular Yisrael Beytenu party and ultra-Orthodox parties on the question of a bill regulating the military draft among the ultra-Orthodox.

Earlier this week, Gantz said that if Netanyahu can’t form a government by the Wednesday deadline, he should be given a chance to form a coalition before subjecting Israelis to new elections.

But the Knesset is expected to pass a law dissolving the Knesset if Netanyahu fails to reach an eleventh-hour deal, preventing President Reuven Rivlin from offering Gantz a shot at coalition building.

Gantz’s Blue and White won 35 seats in the 120-member parliament in the April elections, making the center-right faction the largest opposition party, and the second-largest party in the Knesset behind Likud, which also won 35 seats.

Gantz has vowed not to join a government led by Netanyahu, but has no clear path to forming a government without Likud, as it has ruled out an alliance with Arab lawmakers, and ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties — including Yisrael Beytenu — have said they will not join a Blue and White government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Likud-drafted bill to dissolve the Knesset was set to face its final two votes in the plenum Wednesday night.

Hours before the vote, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu continued to blame each other for the crisis. Parties not involved in the coalition talks threatened to filibuster the Knesset session to foil the dissolution and enable the possibility of another lawmaker being given a chance at coalition building, though Knesset regulations could restrict their debate time.

Theoretically, the motion could still be pulled at any time before the final vote if a compromise to the coalition crisis is found. The prime minister has until midnight to announce a new coalition, and his bid to call elections — the second national ballot in a matter of months — seemed geared to prevent the president from tasking someone else with forming a government.

Liberman has repeatedly said he backs Netanyahu for prime minister, but will only join the government if there is a commitment to pass, unaltered, a version of the bill promoted during the previous Knesset. That draft of the bill is opposed by ultra-Orthodox parties, which want to soften its terms. Netanyahu needs both Yisrael Beytenu and the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority government.

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