Gantz: 'I received an offer I couldn't not refuse'

Netanyahu floats new offer for unity government, Gantz swiftly rejects it

PM says country needs leadership to face ‘growing security challenges,’ but Blue and White chief accuses him of ‘not seeking unity but immunity’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. (Oded Balilty and Jack Guez/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. (Oded Balilty and Jack Guez/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday extended a new proposal to Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz to join a unity government that includes the premier’s Likud party and his allies on the religious right.

The offer was quickly dismissed by Gantz as disingenuous, with the Blue and White leader saying Netanyahu “is not seeking unity but immunity,” in a reference to the prime minister’s insistence on retaining the premiership — allegedly so as to avoid having to step down if he is indicted in the three criminal cases against him.

“We will wait to receive the mandate from the president and start serious negotiations to form a liberal unity government that will usher in change and bring back hope for Israel’s citizens,” Gantz said.

The suggestion, made a week before the deadline for Netanyahu to form a coalition following September’s election, is based on the president’s proposal for a power-sharing government. It would maintain the status quo on matters of religion and state for a year, while moving forward on a compromise for military conscription for the ultra-Orthodox — an issue that derailed efforts to form a government following April’s national vote.

“This is the only government that can be formed right now,” the prime minister said. “I call on Benny Gantz to show national responsibility and enter into immediate negotiations with me, to form alongside me the government that the State of Israel needs so much.”

Netanyahu did not offer to reconsider his insistence that the government include the ultra-Orthodox and hard-right parties — a major impediment for Blue and White.

Gantz dismissed the proposal as “an offer I couldn’t not refuse.”

He added: “Even now [Netanyahu] is unwilling to engage in direct negotiations and to acknowledge the fact that the majority of Israeli citizens voted for a liberal unity government, without the extremes.”

Senior officials in Blue and White added that Netanyahu’s proposal appeared to be a campaign move ahead of a possible third election.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the press in Tel Aviv on September 26, 2019. (Avshalom Shoshoni/Flash90)

Likud condemned Blue and White for dismissing the proposal, saying Gantz was “capitulating” to the dictates of Blue and White no. 2 Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman. It called Gantz “a serial objector.”

Likud’s proposal called for swiftly approving a multi-year defense plan in light of “growing security challenges,” agreeing on a deficit target and changing “budgetary priorities” to fund increased defense spending, formulating an agreement on “critical social needs” to be funded by the state, and preserving the status quo on matters of religion and state for a year, as well as Netanyahu and Gantz presenting a “joint position” on US President Donald Trump’s peace plan and on annexing the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu releases a video statement saying he had called Gantz to discuss the proposal.

“Israeli citizens are looking around them and seeing the Middle East changing before our eyes — for the worse,” Netanyahu said. “Whoever needs to know also knows that security challenges are growing; they’re not waiting for us.”

Netanyahu must form a coalition by October 24 or inform President Reuven Rivlin that he has failed to do so. By law, Rivlin could grant him a 14-day extension, but he is believed unlikely to do so, as the prospects of the premier making further progress in the current gridlock are seen as slim.

Rivlin would then need to task another Knesset member with attempting to form a government — with Gantz the likely next candidate, though he is seen as even less likely to succeed in forming a government.

Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman speaks during an event in Givatayim, on September 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Both Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu have called for a unity government alongside Likud but without the religious parties. Gantz’s party has also called for Netanyahu to step down as head of Likud due to the indictment pending against him, saying it will not serve under a prime minister charged with criminal wrongdoing. Blue and White has said a unity government with Likud could be formed “within an hour” if Netanyahu steps down.

On Wednesday the leaders of three religious Knesset factions signed a pledge put forward by Netanyahu in which they vowed not to join a minority coalition backed by the Joint List alliance of majority-Arab and Arab parties.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism along with the national religious Jewish Home-National Union all agreed to sign. However Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right refused, saying the repeated pledges of fealty to Netanyahu were superfluous.

“We are part of the right-wing bloc, a bloc of 55 lawmakers who are working together and conducting negotiations jointly. There is no need to sign a new document every two days,” Shaked said Thursday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting of Likud party members at the Knesset in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The leading option for a coalition has been a proposal by Rivlin for a unity government in which power would be equally divided and Netanyahu and Gantz would each serve two years as prime minister. Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

Recently the Israel Hayom daily has floated claims that Blue and White could seek to create a minority government supported from the outside by the Joint List  and the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu faction.

But at no point since last month’s election has Gantz expressed any intention of forming such a minority coalition with Labor and the Democratic Camp (44 seats in total). The Israel Hayom daily is widely viewed as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, during a press conference at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

On Wednesday evening, Channel 12 reported that Gantz was warming up to the idea of serving in a coalition along with Netanyahu, despite having vowed not to do so during the election campaign.

According to the network, Gantz has been telling confidants that his party will “hold their noses for a number of months” and adopt Rivlin’s proposal for a power-sharing compromise.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is widely expected to decided by the end of the year whether to indict Netanyahu in three criminal cases, following the completion of the hearing process for the premier earlier this month.

If Rivlin’s proposal is adopted and Netanyahu is charged, Gantz would only have to serve under Netanyahu for a month or two before the Likud leader takes a leave of absence.

“At the end of the day, Netanyahu has an expiration date,” Channel 12 quoted Gantz as telling confidants.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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