Netanyahu, Gantz talk up unity as their parties sling mud at each other

PM says differences small, urges Blue and White chief to meet him immediately to form coalition; Gantz insists on heading such a government

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

A composite image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz at polling stations in Jerusalem and Rosh Haayin, respectively, during the Knesset Elections on March 2, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL, AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
A composite image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz at polling stations in Jerusalem and Rosh Haayin, respectively, during the Knesset Elections on March 2, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL, AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz on Tuesday both expressed willingness to continue efforts to form a unity government that would include both their parties, even as Likud and Blue and White kept hurling accusations at each other.

Gantz was tasked last week with forming a government after 61 lawmakers backed him as prime minister, and he has a week left to form a coalition. However, since he does not have enough votes for a government that relies on the support of both Avigdor Liberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beytenu party and the Arab-majority Joint List, the leading option has remained a unity government.

In recent days, Likud and Blue and White have clashed over the latter’s bid to call a Knesset vote to replace parliament speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Likud member. Such a move would hand Gantz’s party control over the legislative agenda, including, possibly, passing a law that would bar Netanyahu from serving as prime minister. The High Court on Monday night ruled that Edelstein must hold such a vote by Wednesday. Likud has warned that if Edelstein is replaced, that would be the end of unity talks.

Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic was a crucial time in which leadership and national responsibility had to be exercised, claiming the disagreements between the rivals regarding the specifics of a unity government are small and can be overcome.

“The citizens of Israel need a unity government that would act to save their lives and livelihoods,” he said, addressing Gantz. “This isn’t time for fourth elections. Let’s meet now and form a government today. I am waiting for you.”

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. At left is Benny Gantz. Center, with back to camera, is Benjamin Netanyahu (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

Gantz said he was demanding that he go first as prime minister in a rotating premiership deal.

“I have an expectation and a demand for a unity government headed by me, as the one who has [the support of] 62 Knesset seats,” he told activists from his party who had demonstrated outside his house, calling on him to form a unity coalition rather than a minority government propped up by the Joint List.

“There is some expectation to join [a unity government] under Netanyahu, as if that is the only alternative,” Gantz added. “I have overseen wars. We know how to handle national crises as well as they do.”

Likud fumed earlier Tuesday following the High Court ruling and the formation of parliamentary oversight committees by Blue and White despite Likud’s opposition.

After gaining control over the Arrangements Committee, which determines which parliamentary committees will be formed and who will sit on them during a transitional government, the center-left bloc late Monday pushed ahead with the formation of six special parliamentary committees, including one to oversee Israel’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Likud’s bloc boycotted all the votes.

“Blue and White together with [Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor] Liberman and the [mostly Arab] Joint List decided to steal the Knesset from 2.5 million right-wing voters,” Likud said in a statement Tuesday.

“While showing unprecedented destructiveness, ignoring any existing norm in the Knesset’s history, they decided to form no fewer than six temporary committees, in all of which they set a majority for themselves with their representative heading the committee,” it charged. “That is in total contrast with the total Knesset seat distribution and with the accepted practice throughout 22 [previous] Knessets.”

The party said the right-wing bloc “will not cooperate with this and won’t take part in these undemocratic discussions and votes, which quash and ignore 58 MKs chosen by the people.” It vowed to fight the “thuggish and undemocratic behavior.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Monday night, High Court justices ordered Edelstein to hold a vote by Wednesday on replacing him, ruling against Edelstein’s effort to block the vote, and calling his delaying tactics unjustified and anti-democratic.

The ruling had come barely an hour after Edelstein rebuffed the justices’ call on him earlier in the day to hold a vote on a new speaker.

Were Edelstein to again defy the court, Israel would be plunged into a constitutional crisis.

Edelstein would likely lose his job in such a vote, since the alliance of 61 MKs led by Gantz is set to back Gantz loyalist Meir Cohen for the post. Blue and White would then gain control of the parliamentary agenda.

Blue and White is also seeking to advance legislation that would bar a Knesset member facing criminal charges from forming a government, effectively disqualifying Netanyahu.

Edelstein set off a firestorm of criticism last Wednesday after he refused to allow the Knesset plenum to convene to vote both on establishing the Arrangements Committee and electing a new speaker. Edelstein at first argued the freeze was linked to safety precautions amid the coronavirus outbreak, but later explained it was meant to force Likud and Blue and White to compromise in unity talks.

Critics said it amounted to an illegal shuttering of parliament by Likud in order to improve the party’s leverage in the coalition talks, and some argued that it constituted part of an attempted political coup, with a parliamentary majority headed by Gantz prevented from assuming control of the Knesset’s agenda.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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