The Blue and White party’s leadership on Saturday rebuffed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s two-pronged approach of appealing for an emergency unity government while threatening against parliamentary action he said would scupper it.
Netanyahu entreated his political rival Benny Gantz during a Channel 12 interview to enter into a power-sharing unity government alongside him in order to face down the coronavirus crisis, but also warned that such a government would not go forward if Blue and White moves to replace Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Monday.
Gantz in a tweet spurned the premier’s rhetoric, saying: “Netanyahu, someone who wants unity doesn’t use ultimatums, doesn’t use contrived leaks and certainly doesn’t hurt democracy and the citizenry and paralyze the Israeli Knesset.”
And his deputy, MK Yair Lapid, wrote: “In the midst of a national health crisis the prime minister goes on TV and lies and slanders ceaselessly.”
He added: “His threats do not impress us… Next week we will choose a new Knesset speaker and use the House to fight the coronavirus for the good of the citizenry.”
Edelstein, Netanyahu and their Likud party were accused by rivals this week of using the coronavirus outbreak to undermine Israel’s democracy as the speaker shuttered the newly sworn-in Knesset, citing virus fears and a need to try to reach compromises between the parties before setting up committees and moving forward with the legislative agenda. President Reuven Rivlin then phoned Edelstein and urged him to reopen the legislature, warning against harm to Israeli democracy, and Edelstein later said he would do so on Monday.
Gantz warned Friday that steps to stifle parliament were bringing Israel closer to a “dictatorship.”
The party’s No. 3 Moshe Ya’alon, speaking to Channel 12 after Netanyahu on Saturday evening, said the premier was “afraid” of his political and legal prospects if Blue and White controlled the Knesset and the Justice Ministry, and accused him of pushing through emergency ordinances in the dead of night — a reference to the introduction of digital surveillance of Israelis to track virus carriers and those they risk infecting, which began last Wednesday without parliamentary oversight.
Ya’alon said that more important than the coronavirus crisis was “to have a democracy here.” Of members of Likud, he asked: “Don’t they see we’re being led towards a dictatorship? They’ll need to explain to their children and grandchildren where they were during these critical days… Will [they] be a part of it, the dictatorship he is leading us to?”
Ya’alon added: “During the Yom Kippur War wasn’t there a Knesset? Was there ever a time when there wasn’t a Knesset?” Oversight of the government’s actions during a time of crisis was “critical at a time like this,” he stated.
As to the prime minister’s offer, Ya’alon said: “I don’t believe him.” Ya’alon claimed negotiations between the parties were stuck, with “no agreements” having been reached.
Netanyahu told Channel 12 he had offered Gantz an equal sharing of power between their two political blocs for three years, with Netanyahu serving the first 18 months as prime minister, and then handing over to Gantz; an equal number of ministers; Blue and White would hold the foreign affairs and defense portfolios, and Likud the Treasury and Knesset speaker’s job for 18 months, after which the two parties would switch; and a justice minister would be agreed upon by both sides — otherwise a minister and a deputy would be appointed from each party, with both required to sign off on major legislation and decisions.
Earlier Saturday, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman said he supported a unity government composed only of Likud and Blue and White, no matter who led it.
“We must get a wide consensus among the people. I agree to Gantz being prime minister first; I will agree to Netanyahu as well if there is agreement between the two big parties,” he told Channel 12.
Liberman said all other factions should remain outside.
He also accused Netanyahu of “exploiting the coronavirus in order to skip over political procedures” in this week’s closure of the Knesset and passage of emergency directives without parliamentary oversight.
Liberman argued that it was inappropriate for Netanyahu, who has been appearing on an almost daily basis in briefings to the press, to serve as the spokesman for the government’s response, saying an apolitical individual should be appointed, similar to during the Gulf War when Army Radio’s Nachman Shai would provide regular updates to the public.
He added: “There’s a lot of talk [by Netanyahu] and not enough action… Not enough respirators, not enough tests. Labs aren’t working on weekends. In an emergency situation like this, it’s absolute insanity.”
Gantz on Saturday afternoon promised supporters who rallied outside of his home that he would make sure the Knesset was back up and running on Monday.
“On Monday we will re-establish the Knesset and we will do everything to pass laws and keep our promises,” he said.
Edelstein on Wednesday shut down the Knesset plenum, blocking votes on issues where there was a 61-strong majority against Netanyahu’s transitional government.
Edelstein’s move prevented Knesset votes that would have enabled parliamentary oversight of the government’s far-reaching measures to tackle the virus. He cited the need for unity talks with Blue and White and regulations restricting lawmakers from convening, but has been accused of using the crisis as cover for undemocratic action.
Blue and White filed a petition Thursday against Edelstein’s decision to prevent the Knesset from convening, which the High Court of Justice will hear Sunday.
A Channel 13 report Friday said Likud and Blue and White were closing in on an agreement along the lines of that detailed by Netanyahu in his Saturday interview.
However, it noted that the talks were still in a delicate stage and could well yet fall apart.
According to Channel 13, Netanyahu would serve first as prime minister in an emergency government that would only deal with the coronavirus crisis. If the crisis passes, the power-sharing arrangement could be broadened into a national unity government.
To ensure that Netanyahu does not dissolve the Knesset when the time comes to hand over power, the plan includes a legal agreement that if something like that were to happen, Gantz would become interim prime minister, the report said.
But several stumbling blocks still remained, including a key disagreement over who would head the Justice Ministry, seen as key amid allegations Netanyahu has sought to subvert the rule of law as he tries to avoid his corruption trial, which was due to start this week but has been postponed to May amid the coronavirus crisis.
Gantz was also said to be facing opposition to joining a Netanyahu government from Lapid, with Channel 13 saying there was “a lot of tension” between the two in recent days over the issue.
It was possible, the report said, that Gantz could break with Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction, and go into the unity government with just some 18 of the party’s 33 MKs. However, this would leave him vastly outnumbered by the Netanyahu-led right-wing and religious bloc.
Hebrew media reports have for days said Gantz and party No. 4 Gabi Ashkenazi were in favor of a unity government, while Lapid and Ya’alon were refusing, meaning Blue and White could end up splitting.
Blue and White have denied reports of a possible split as “political spin.”