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Lapid urges Blue and White to reunite under him for new elections, is rebuffed

Gantz’s party rejects offer to get alliance back together, says defense minister ‘the only one who will lead’; Michaeli tells fellow Labor MKs to leave coalition, defect to Gantz

Yair Lapid (left) and Benny Gantz speak to supporters in Tel Aviv, on February 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Yair Lapid (left) and Benny Gantz speak to supporters in Tel Aviv, on February 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Thursday issued a call to Blue and White and other parties to join an alliance under his leadership, an offer that was immediately rebuffed by his partner-turned-rival.

The call came a day after the centrist Blue and White joined the opposition in supporting Lapid’s motion to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections — the fourth in two years — in a preliminary vote.

Lapid ran as part of a Benny Gantz-led Blue and White during the three election campaigns over the past two years, but broke with Gantz over the latter’s decision to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

In an interview with Army Radio on Thursday, Lapid said: “On my worst day [in the current polls, our party] is twice as large as the others,” referring to Blue and White.

The Yesh Atid leader said he gave up the leadership spot to Gantz when polls indicated he was more popular, “so now let them unite under us.” He said the leader of the centrist bloc must be someone “whose word can be trusted” and won’t “succumb to pressure,” in a jab at Gantz.

Recent polls have shown Yesh Atid mounting a formidable challenge to Netanyahu, garnering around 20 seats, putting it just behind the right-wing Yamina, and a few more slots behind Likud’s approximate projected 27 seats. Blue and White, meanwhile, is predicted to lose considerable support and wind up as one of the smaller Knesset parties after elections, with 10 seats or fewer.

The combined Blue and White-Yesh Atid alliance picked up 33 seats in the March election, compared to Likud’s 36.

Nonetheless, Blue and White told Army Radio it would not run under Lapid’s leadership.

“Lapid was not and won’t be an option for prime minister. He has no chance of forming a government. He has always evaded responsibility, including when he served as a failed finance minister,” the station quoted a statement from the party saying.

Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz (R) and party no. 2 Yair Lapid at an election event hosted by the Tel Aviv International Salon, Tel Aviv, February 17, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

“Gantz is the only one who will lead the centrist camp in the next election,” it said.

Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, entered politics in 2019 with the stated goal of unseating Netanyahu, who is charged in three criminal cases after over a decade at the country’s helm.

His decision to join with Lapid came after months of negotiations in which the two sides struggled to come to terms on who would lead the faction, eventually settling on a power-sharing deal that would have made Gantz prime minister first.

The resultant Blue and White alliance failed to remove Netanyahu from power in three consecutive elections, leading Gantz to split off and join a coalition with Likud in a move he described as necessary to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

Lapid has vociferously attacked Gantz since he split off to join the government, and the two are reportedly no longer on speaking terms. Nonetheless, the Yesh Atid leader has struck a more conciliatory tone toward Gantz since he announced his support for dissolving the Knesset.

Lapid, a former journalist who founded the party in his image in 2012, has also faced calls within his party to hold a first-ever leadership primary, which he rejected. 

Meanwhile, Labor party leader Amir Peretz hinted his center-left party, which joined Netanyahu’s coalition along with Gantz, could run alone in the next national vote, despite polls showing it failing to enter the Knesset for the first time ever.

“I’m not sure we won’t run alone,” he told Army Radio, despite previous statements that he would run with Blue and White.

Economy Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Peretz also announced he would run for president.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli, who was forcefully opposed to joining the Netanyahu-led government in breach of the party’s campaign promises, told Peretz and his fellow Labor minister Itzik Shmuli they should defect from Labor to Blue and White, to give her the space to re-energize the Labor party.

“Shmuli and Peretz are welcome to join Blue and White. From the beginning of this Knesset and government, they went to [Blue and White’s] faction meetings,” she told Army Radio on Wednesday night. “I am fighting to save the Labor party — I believe the court will rule in our favor on the primaries.”

Michaeli is pushing for party primaries, a move opposed by Peretz and Shmuli, and said she believed a court would back her view.  Labor, the party that governed Israel for the first decades of its existence, has been out of power since 2001, and has seen its support dwindle in recent years as voters seeking an alternative to Netanyahu have flocked to centrist upstarts such as Kadima, Yesh Atid and Blue and White.

Head of the Labor party Amir Peretz, right, and party member Merav Michaeli hold a press conference with party members at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

If Israel goes back to elections it will be its fourth round in two years, capping a period of unprecedented political instability only made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Knesset must still approve the bill to dissolve itself in three more votes for elections to be scheduled, likely in the spring or early summer.

Netanyahu on Wednesday night urged Gantz to “slam the emergency brake” on the drive toward early elections, an appeal immediately rejected by Blue and White, which has accused the premier of reneging on coalition promises regarding the state budget and plotting to avoid honoring his rotation deal with Gantz.

Likud and Blue and White have been at loggerheads almost since the inception of their power-sharing coalition in May, but ties between the two hit a nadir in recent weeks as the budget deadline nears. Gantz has accused Netanyahu of refusing to pass the 2020 and 2021 state budgets in one shot — as per the coalition agreement — in an attempt to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister in November 2021, also as per the coalition agreement.

If the Knesset dissolution bill isn’t ultimately approved, the government has until December 23 to pass a 2020 budget or the government will fall and elections will automatically be scheduled for March 23, 2021.

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