Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party is expected to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz be tasked with forming a government, according to Hebrew media reports Thursday neither confirmed nor denied by the party.
With Liberman’s backing, Gantz could receive more recommendations than Netanyahu, complicating Rivlin’s choice of who to give first shot at forming a government.
Though neither mustered majority Knesset support in Monday’s election, Netanyahu has the backing of 58 MKs and his Likud is the largest party. But were Liberman and the entire Joint List of mainly Arab parties to recommend Gantz, he would have 62 backers. Even if the three-strong Balad faction of the Joint List chose not to back Gantz, as happened in September, the Blue and White leader would still have 59.
As of Thursday night, it remained unclear whether the 15-strong Joint List would endorse Gantz, as most of its members did following the September elections, or abstain. Yisrael Beytenu in September also declined to endorse a candidate last time. The Joint List’s relations with Gantz have worsened in recent weeks, as Gantz emphatically ruled out seeking its support for a potential majority coalition.
A Yisrael Beytanu spokesperson declined to comment on the reports or to confirm or deny that the party would recommend Gantz as prime minister to the president.
Liberman’s reported move to back Gantz is also aimed at giving Blue and White control over the Knesset speaker position, allowing the opposition parties to advance legislation that would prevent a person facing criminal charges from forming a government — effectively disqualifying Netanyahu from doing so, the Haaretz daily reported Thursday.
Liberman’s party announced its backing for the Blue and White bill earlier Thursday. Gantz’s party is also said to be seeking to oust Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of Likud to ensure he doesn’t torpedo the bill.
After holding a faction meeting earlier Thursday, Yisrael Beytenu said in a statement that it had decided “to move forward with the promotion of two laws: The first law [will] limit the tenure of a prime minister to two terms. The second law [will] prevent an MK facing indictment from forming a government.”
The legislation is aimed directly at Netanyahu, who has served four terms as prime minister and has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases against him; his trial is slated to begin on March 17.
“This is the first course,” Liberman told Yisrael Beytenu officials in internal consultations Thursday, according to media reports. “Now we wait quietly and let things develop. One thing is clear: We won’t let Netanyahu go to a fourth election. Our goal is to establish a government as quickly as possible and to send Netanyahu to his retirement.
“Even Likud members of Knesset who talk to me are telling me, ‘Well done for making this move.’ They want to see Netanyahu finish his term and leave [the PM’s residence on] Balfour [Street in Jerusalem],” he said.
Yisrael Beytenu joins MKs from Blue and White, Labor-Gesher-Meretz and the Joint List who have said they would back legislation barring Netanyahu from forming a coalition. If all members of the four parties support it, the law will pass with a majority of 62 votes in favor.
Netanyahu on Thursday accused Gantz and Liberman of seeking to defy the will of millions of voters. Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has a lot to learn from them,” he said. “Even Iran doesn’t behave like this.”
On Wednesday Netanyahu accused Gantz of seeking to undermine democracy and defy the will of the public after Blue and White confirmed that it would seek the legislation to bar him from serving as prime minister due to his upcoming trial.
“Gantz lost and now he’s trying to steal the election,” Netanyahu said at the start of a meeting of right-wing factions that support him, as a near-final tally of votes in Monday’s election showed his bloc at 58 seats, three short of the Knesset majority he needs. The bloc that opposes him has 62 seats.
Gantz proposed such a law after the September election, but it was struck down at the time by Liberman.
“The people’s will is clear. The national Zionist camp includes 58 seats. The leftist Zionist camp includes 47 seats,” Netanyahu said, including Yisrael Beytenu as part of the left, but leaving out the predominantly Arab Joint List and its apparent 15 seats, suggesting that their supporters are not part of the collective Israeli people.
He added: “My friends and I, and millions of citizens who supported us, will not let that happen.”
Meanwhile the head of the Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh, tweeted: “Netanyahu wouldn’t recognize democracy if it filed three indictments against him and prevented him from forming a government for a third time.”
Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon on Wednesday said no legislation could be passed until a new parliament is sworn in. But Blue and White is reportedly planning to file the draft law only after the new Knesset is sworn in on March 16.
After more than 99 percent of the votes were tallied, Likud and its allies had 58 seats combined. The right-wing religious bloc supporting Netanyahu — consisting of Likud, Shas, UTJ and Yamina — thus fell short of the 61 seats needed to form a government, and its rivals seem certain to hold a majority in the next Knesset. These figures were confirmed on Thursday by the Central Elections Committee, although they have yet to be officially authorized.
A similar law to the one being pushed by Blue and White, that would have ousted a premier facing an indictment, was supported by Netanyahu himself in 2008, when Ehud Olmert was facing corruption charges, Hebrew-language media reported. The law didn’t pass, but Olmert resigned before the charges were filed.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the plan to pass a law barring a person facing criminal charges from serving as prime minister was technically possible to implement, with some observers arguing that private member, non-governmental draft laws cannot be filed during a transitional government.
Blue and White is apparently convinced it is possible, and that it isn’t different from Likud proposing a law to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, as happened last year.