In a bombshell move that threatens to block his former ally becoming Israel’s prime minister, Yesh Atid-Telem leader Yair Lapid on Monday promised his party would vote with Benjamin Netanyahu if the prime minister seeks to cancel his rotation agreement with Benny Gantz, which is supposed to take effect 18 months into the lifespan of the planned Netanyahu-Gantz coalition. Lapid would thus help ensure the necessary majority to cancel the law anchoring the Netanyahu-Gantz power-sharing deal, and bring down the government.
Lapid’s extraordinary promise drew a furious response from Gantz’s Blue and White party, and an allegation from Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman that, in so doing, Lapid would be saving Netanyahu’s political skin. Lapid responded that it was Gantz who is saving Netanyahu by partnering with him in the new coalition, and that if, down the line, “we have an opportunity to topple the government, of course we will do so.”
Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, entered politics early last year and formed an alliance with Lapid and former Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon. Their Blue and White party fought three elections on a promise never to sit in government with Netanyahu so long as he is facing corruption allegations, branding him divisive, corrupt and dangerous to Israel.
Having narrowly failed to defeat Netanyahu and his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies, however, Gantz late last month announced that he was prepared to join a government with the Likud leader after all — to battle the coronavirus pandemic and help protect Israeli democracy. He sought to do so alongside Lapid and Ya’alon, but they bitterly opposed the move, and their alliance collapsed, with Lapid now set to lead the Knesset opposition.
Gantz on April 20 signed a coalition deal with Netanyahu to form a unity government, with the incumbent premier serving for 18 months and then handing Gantz the reins. The Knesset is currently discussing a number of law changes aimed at guaranteeing that the rotation would happen and also that Netanyahu, under criminal indictment, not be legally disqualified from leadership.
Many have speculated that Netanyahu will not honor the rotation agreement that requires him to hand over power to Gantz in October 2021. Gantz, therefore, is working with Likud to pass a bill anchoring the necessary mechanism in the law, which involves changing one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.
To prevent Netanyahu from later overturning the legislation with a regular majority of 61 in the 120-member parliament — which he could feasibly achieve — the bill stipulates that canceling it would require a special majority of 75 lawmakers.
Such a significant change to the Basic Law, weakening the power of the Knesset’s basic majority, has been criticized in some quarters as detrimental to democracy.
It was in that context that Lapid dropped his Gantz-blocking bombshell Monday. “You must be saying to yourself, we’re covered, because we’re passing this law [on the rotation of the premiership] with the votes of 61 MKs, but we’ve made a clause, because we’re so smart, that says it can only be canceled with the votes of 75 MKs,” Lapid said, addressing Blue and White representatives at a Knesset Arrangements Committee discussion on changes to the law that would allow the power-sharing agreement to move forward. But “whenever Bibi [Netanyahu] feels like canceling the rotation — and of course he won’t want to carry out the rotation — all he has to do is come to me and say, ‘we want to restore these laws to their original form.’ And I want to tell you, to tell this committee, in front of the cameras, we’ll say yes.”
Lapid said he would agree to reverse all of the law changes being discussed, because “we respect democracy and these terrible and embarrassing laws need to be canceled.”
Lapid also quipped that the coalition agreement, in which Gantz tried to ensure that Netanyahu will eventually cede him the premiership, “has more holes than a golf course.”
Blue and White responded to Lapid with a warning of its own.
“If the day comes when Gantz is supposed to enter [the Prime Minister’s Residence on] Balfour [Street] and Lapid drags Israel to elections together with Bibi, he won’t clear the electoral threshold,” it said in a statement.
Yisrael Beytenu party leader Liberman, who has welcomed the Netanyahu-Gantz government despite being left out of it, attacked Lapid and accused him of saying he would “save Netanyahu at Gantz’s expense,” adding: “I hope it was said in jest or taken out of context.”
Lapid responded on Twitter that “I have no intention of saving Bibi. The only one who saved him was Benny Gantz. If in a year, after the coronavirus, we have an opportunity to topple the government, of course we will do so.”
Lapid in recent days has criticized Gantz with a fury once reserved for Netanyahu, calling him “despicable” and his defection “the biggest fraud in the country’s history,” and even saying he was unfit to be prime minister.
“The moment of truth came, and they crumbled,” he charged Sunday during a press conference broadcast online, referring to Blue and White. “Therefore, they are unfit for leadership, and Benny Gantz is unfit to be prime minister.”
Lapid last week accused Gantz of perpetrating “the worst act of fraud in the history of this country” by joining forces with Netanyahu.
He claimed that the move meant various ongoing corruption allegations against Netanyahu would now never be probed, that Israeli democracy and the rule of law would be further undermined, and that Gantz had capitulated to ultra-Orthodox coercion and was guilty of numerous other acts of betrayal and hypocrisy.
He vowed to battle the coalition “in the Knesset, in the courts, in the streets and in the squares.”
Lapid also apologized “to all those people who I convinced to vote for Benny Gantz and Blue and White this past year. I didn’t believe that they would steal your vote and give it to Netanyahu, that they would use your vote to form the fifth Netanyahu government.”
And he predicted that the nascent government would not lost long. “When something is built on crooked foundations, it will fall apart. This government will fall apart, sooner than you think,” Lapid said. “I know what they think about one another. They won’t survive each other. And that’s a good thing. Israel deserves better than a corrupt government that stole their vote.”