Little more than a month since the formation of the new government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is considering offering Defense Minister Benny Gantz the presidency in 2021 as an “honorable way out” from his rotation deal with the premier amid sliding poll numbers, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported Friday.
Party officials who spoke with the newspaper said it would be unreasonable for Netanyahu to honor his agreement to hand the leadership of the country to Gantz in November 2021 — as he repeatedly vowed to do during the coalition negotiations — if Gantz continues to weaken politically.
Gantz, who now also serves in the newly created post of alternate prime minister, broke up his formidable alliance with Yesh Atid-Telem in order to join Netanyahu’s coalition. He said he did so to end Israel’s year-long political crisis and to allow the government to focus on the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet his uneasy alliance with former foe Netanyahu, who he had repeatedly vowed not to join, has led him to bleed voters who feel betrayed. Recent polls have shown Blue and White dropping from its current 15 to 10-12 seats, with Likud shooting up to 40 seats or more.
“It is unreasonable for someone with so much political power to hand over the premiership to someone without any political power,” the paper’s Sima Kadmon wrote Friday, citing the thinking among Likud officials.
Gantz could decide to go to a new election if Netanyahu fails to honor the rotation deal, but Likud officials say he would then risk crashing to an insignificant number of seats.
One Likud minister told the paper that “elections are not an option for Gantz. It’ll be the end of the road for him politically.”
If Gantz agrees to the plan, the report said, the coalition will back his candidacy to replace Reuven Rivlin in mid-2021, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi will replace Gantz in the Defense Ministry, and thus Netanyahu will secure his continued rule while Gantz will avoid a humiliating election defeat.
Since Gantz broke his alliance with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, they have warned repeatedly — as has Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman — that Netanyahu would never honor his agreement to step down after 18 months.
In a swipe at former partner Gantz following publication of the Yedioth Ahronoth story, Lapid tweeted Friday: “I am against Gantz being president. The job includes too much pressure.”
Gantz himself clearly does not trust Netanyahu, leading him to anchor his deal with Likud in unprecedented legislation intended to protect him from the feared attempt at betrayal. This includes clauses guaranteeing that if Netanyahu breaks up the coalition to declare a new election, Gantz will automatically become interim prime minister until that election takes place and a new government is formed.
In recent days a new crisis has been brewing in the coalition surrounding the state budget.
With budget negotiations expected to be especially difficult in the current unity government due to the inclusion of parties from both the right and the left, Likud and Blue and White included in their coalition agreement a commitment “to pass, in an orderly manner, a biennial state budget for 2020 and 2021.”
But citing the rise in coronavirus cases and the uncertainty surrounding the economy, lawmakers from Netanyahu’s bloc within the government have in recent days been touting a one-year budget that deals with only the next four months. This, they asserted, would allow short-term measures to be put in place without limiting future options.
The push for a one-year budget, however, has led to concerns in Blue and White that Netanyahu is looking for a way to end his partnership with Gantz, prompting another national election that is expected to greatly benefit him.
The coalition deal agreed on by the parties stipulates that if the Knesset fails to pass a budget, leading to new elections, the side that votes for the budget will automatically hold the premiership until the election and formation of a new government. This provides Netanyahu, who holds financial levers in the coalition, with a potential exit window, if he chooses to propose a budget Blue and White can’t get behind.
Passing a one-year budget until the end of 2020 would then give Netanyahu a possible way to force new elections in 2021 without having to give up the position of prime minister. A two-year budget would prevent that option until 2022.
Finance Minister Israel Katz has denied that the one-year budget idea is a pretext for early elections.
“All senior treasury officials, including the head of the budget department, the accountant general and the director-general, wrote an opinion today supporting a one-year budget for economic reasons,” Katz told Channel 12 news last week.
He said that a budget for just 2020 would be able to include measures that “will allow the economy and workers to reintegrate” following the shutdown of the economy due to the coronavirus.
“By contrast,” Katz warned, “a two-year budget including 2021 will require more aggressive measures.”
He added: “I am convinced that there is no intention of using the budget for elections.”
But Gantz is reportedly unconvinced that the push by Netanyahu and his allies is entirely non-political.
Earlier in the week, a senior Likud source was quoted by Channel 12 as saying that “the marriage between us and Blue and White will end at the Rabbinate [with a divorce] much faster than everyone thinks… Netanyahu is trying to find the right timing and pretext to call elections.”
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.