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Netanyahu said to offer Gantz to be prime minister first in new unity deal

Blue and White leader turns down proposal, TV network reports, but PM is considering offering same carrot to other leaders from bloc of parties aiming to oust him

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (C-L) and Prime Minister Benjamin (C) in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (C-L) and Prime Minister Benjamin (C) in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, running out of time to form a coalition, has offered his former coalition partner Benny Gantz a rotation deal with the Blue and White leader to serve first as prime minister, Channel 12 news reported Sunday.

The offer would seem to indicate Netanyahu’s growing desperation, given that the last government fell apart over Netanyahu’s refusal to honor the coalition agreement with Gantz that would have seen the defense minister take over as premier from Netanyahu, later this year.

Under the terms of the reported offer, Gantz would be prime minister for the first year, after which Netanyahu would return to lead the country for another two years, and then Gantz take over again for a final year.

During his terms as prime minister, Gantz would continue to also serve as defense minister. Netanyahu would continue to live at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem throughout the four years, the report said.

The Likud idea of offering Gantz a new rotation deal as prime minister was first reported last week by Zman, the Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site.

Gantz reportedly turned down the offer that was eventually made during a Friday phone call, Channel 12 reported, telling Netanyahu “I don’t see that as feasible.”

The station assessed that though Gantz refused, in line with his campaign promise to not join a Netanyahu-led government, the offer is still tempting to him because it would enable him to finally become prime minister, a development that has been all but dashed by the collapse of the last unity government. However, were he to accept, it would mark the second time that Gantz would break the same election promise, having vowed to not enter a coalition with Netanyahu before the previous elections as well.

Netanyahu and Gantz formed their doomed unity government after the March 2020 election, agreeing that Netanyahu would serve first for two years and then Gantz takes over for another two, which was scheduled to begin in November this year. However, the unity government automatically dissolved at the end of the year after failing to pass a state budget, a development that was widely seen as orchestrated by Netanyahu to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett at a press conference in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Elections in March were inconclusive, just like the previous three votes, with the Knesset divided between two blocs, a Netanyahu-led group of right and religious parties facing others who want to see the prime minister changed. Neither bloc has a majority in the Knesset and both sides are engaged in negotiations to reach the minimum of 61 seats needed for a majority in 120-seat Knesset.

Though Gantz turned down Netanyahu’s offer, the prime minister is considering making the same proposal to the leaders of two other parties who are in talks with the so-called “change bloc,” Yamina chief MK Naftali Bennett, and New Hope leader MK Gideon Sa’ar, both Channel 12 and Channel 13 news stations reported, without citing sources. Bennett, who is determined to become prime minister himself, has not committed to either bloc while Sa’ar has vowed to see Netanyahu ousted.

In addition, Netanyahu is also said to be considering suggesting the same arrangement with Knesset Speaker MK Yariv Levin, a member of the Likud party that Netanyahu leads.

Elevating Levin to become prime minister would still leave Netanyahu in the powerful position of the alternative prime minister as part of the rotation arrangement and enable both Gantz and Sa’ar to join his coalition, giving him the Knesset majority he needs.

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin at the swearing-in of the 24th Knesset on April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)

Netanyahu has just another nine days to complete the task of building a government before the mandate returns to President Reuven Rivlin who can then look at other options, including tasking the next lawmaker in line, opposition leader MK Yair Lapid whose Yesh Atid party is the largest in the bloc of parties trying to replace Netanyahu.

In the meantime, there has reportedly been some progress in talks among the change bloc, which is comprised of an assortment of left, center, and right-wing parties with dramatically different world views on some key national issues. Lapid, who wants there to be no more than 20 ministers in the government has agreed to Bennett and Sa’ar’s demand that there be more, though just how many is still disputed, Channel 13 reported.

Bennett, for his part, has given up on a demand that he have a double vote in the broader cabinet, but is still insisting on that power in the top-level security cabinet, Channel 13 reported.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at Yesh Atid party headquarters in Tel Aviv on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

There are also disputes over the control of key ministries. Though Channel 13 reported that there is agreement among the parties that Gantz would remain defense minister the Kan public broadcaster said that Sa’ar wants the post. The justice ministry is being chased by New Hope, Yamina, and some of the left-wing parties in the bloc, while the Labor and Yisrael Beytenu parties are haggling over the Finance Ministry, Kan reported. Also, the Education Ministry is being contested by New Hope and the left-wing Meretz party, according to the station.

A change bloc government would also be based on a rotation of the premiership between Lapid and Bennett, according to Hebrew media reports. However, Bennett is said to be facing reluctance from within his own right-wing nationalist party to cooperating with Lapid, and some of his Yamina’s seven lawmakers may not agree to join such a coalition, Channel 12 reported. That would further hamper Lapid’s efforts to build a viable coalition.

Should no government be formed the country will head to its fifth elections in two and half years.

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