Netanyahu and Gantz to meet in last-gasp bid to form government

Blue and White leader will sit down with PM, 26 hours before deadline to assemble coalition, with no breakthrough in sight

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet on Tuesday night in a last-ditch bid to form a unity government of their Blue and White and Likud parties.

The 10 p.m. meeting will come 26 hours before Gantz’s deadline to form a governing coalition. The centrist leader was tasked with cobbling together a coalition after Netanyahu failed to do so in the wake of the September elections.

Should Gantz fail to form a coalition by Wednesday at midnight, Knesset members have a further 21 days to choose a candidate to be given the mandate to form a government, or decide to head back to elections — the third in less than a year.

Though the former IDF chief of staff has no realistic path to forming a majority coalition without Likud, he could theoretically form a minority government, provided Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman came on board, with the external backing of the predominantly Arab Joint List.

Netanyahu and Gantz have traded barbs in recent days over the prospect of a Joint List-backed minority government, which the Blue and White leader has neither endorsed nor ruled out.

On Sunday evening, Netanyahu’s Likud party organized an “emergency rally” that was aimed aimed at “stopping the dangerous minority government that is reliant on terror supporters.” There, the premier accused members of the Joint List of seeking to “destroy the country.” He claimed, without proof, that the Arab MKs support the Gaza terror organizations that Israel fought against last week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) at a meeting of the 55-member union of his Likud party and other right-wing and religious parties, in the Knesset, November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu faced heavy fire for his comments, with members of Blue and White, the Joint List and others accusing him of incitement to violence against the lawmakers and of echoing the words of far-right extremists.

Speaking to the press ahead of a faction meeting at the Knesset on Monday, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said Netanyahu’s rhetoric sounded like that of a follower of Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Muslim worshipers when he opened fire in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.

“The words coming out of Netanyahu’s mouth in the past few days are incitement to violence. They are words spoken by followers of Baruch Goldstein, not by a prime minister. It will end badly. He knows it will end badly. He’s been there,” Lapid said in a statement. Netanyahu was widely accused by the left of incitement in the period that led up to the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Giving a status update on his efforts to form a unity government with Likud, Gantz said Monday that he “has come to understand that he’s been talking to a wall — talking to a bloc,” he clarified, referring to the 55-member union of right-wing, religious parties that have insisted on negotiating as a single unit.

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz (R) and No. 2 Yair Lapid at a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Instead of frightening and scaring others, let’s talk. Instead of inciting and dividing, let’s talk. Let’s sit down and reach a compromise that can truly serve all of Israel’s citizens. That can enable the formation of a broad and liberal unity government, as the public wanted,” he said.

The two main sticking points in the coalition talks have been the right-wing bloc, which Netanyahu has refused to part with, and Blue and White’s refusal to serve under a prime minister facing criminal charges. Rivlin has proposed a power-sharing agreement, whereby Netanyahu would take a leave of absence if indicted and be replaced by Gantz as prime minister.

The attorney general is expected to announce criminal charges against Netanyahu by early next week.

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Liberman met for the second time this week. The meeting was “positive and substantive and the two will continue in their efforts to form a unity government,” Likud and Yisrael Beytenu said in a joint statement.

Liberman, who has been positioned as coalition kingmaker since the September elections, said Monday he would attempt to force a Likud-Blue and White government until Wednesday afternoon.

“If by noon on Wednesday we have not reached an agreement then as far as I am concerned we have failed [at forming a unity government] and it’ll be every man for himself,” Liberman told reporters Monday, seemingly leaving the door open for negotiations for a minority government during Blue and White’s final 12 hours to form a coalition before the midnight deadline later that day.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Liberman said the Sunday night meeting with Netanyahu was “businesslike” and the two did not waste time discussing their past personal quarrels.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks at faction meeting in the Knesset on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The most recent of those was the dramatic falling out between Netanyahu and Liberman in May, when the Yisrael Beytenu leader refused to join the Likud-led coalition after the previous April elections due to disagreements with Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox political allies, precipitating the September vote.

Netanyahu on Monday similarly described the Sunday evening talks as a “good meeting.”

“Not everything is lost. I think there is still hope. I had a meeting yesterday with [Yisrael Beytenu chair] Avigdor Liberman, a good meeting — and we will talk again.

“I can’t believe that Liberman would support a government like this, supported by terror supporters that want to destroy the country,” Netanyahu said. “A national unity government is what the country needs right now, and at this historic moment we have to choose between the curse and the blessing.”

Liberman, who has previously campaigned on tough policies against Arab Israelis and who regularly denounces Joint List MKs as illegitimate political figures, said on Sunday that any minority government would be a “disaster” for the country.

Still, he refused to answer when asked which scenario he views as worse: the formation of a minority government or a third election.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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