Blue and White rejects offer, calls it 'spin'

Netanyahu locks in right, Haredi parties, then urges unity coalition with Gantz

PM invites Gantz to talks ostensibly ‘without preconditions,’ after signing alliance pledge with Yamina, UTJ, Shas; Blue and White: PM knows he’s lost, is scheming for 3rd election

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The leaders of all the parties in the right-wing religious bloc on Thursday signed a document pledging to recommend Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister and vowing to enter a coalition only as a single unit, as the premier called on Blue and White chief Benny Gantz to join a “unity government” that includes those parties.

“I suggest we meet as soon as possible, without preconditions, to work together to establish a broad unity government representing all who believe in a Jewish, democratic Israel,” the prime minister urged, having made a similar call in a statement earlier in the day, after Israeli elections Tuesday left the rival blocs headed by Netanyahu and Gantz short of a Knesset majority.

Speaking at a state memorial event marking three years since the death of former president and prime minister Shimon Peres, Netanyahu hinted at a readiness to rotate the premiership, as Peres and Yitzhak Shamir did after deadlocked elections in 1984. “Shimon sided with the imperative to unite the people” and with that goal “he and Shamir agreed to cooperate,” Netanyahu recalled.

It wasn’t clear whether Netanyahu’s mention of talks “without preconditions” included the significant condition that Yamina, United Torah Judaism and Shas be included in his proposed unity government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz shaking hands during a memorial for former president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, September 19, 2019. (GPO)

Blue and White rejected the offer as “spin,” noted that Gantz’s party was ahead of Likud in the non-final election count, and accused Netanyahu of seeking to blame Blue and White as he seeks the eventual recourse of a third round of elections.

The document pledging unified support behind Netanyahu by leaders of Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina was signed during a meeting of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox party heads earlier Thursday morning. It came on the heels of a press conference Wednesday in which Netanyahu announced the 55-strong united front designed to pressure Gantz into dropping his demand for a “secular” unity government with Likud, minus the ultra-Orthodox and religious parties.

While not enough to form a coalition on its own, Netanyahu is hoping that President Reuven Rivlin will treat his 55-seat bloc as a single party and therefore agree to task Netanyahu with forming the next government.

The document was signed by Netanyahu; United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman; and Yamina MKs Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich. Shas leader Aryeh Deri, while not present at the meeting, gave his consent via phone call and would be signing soon, a spokesman for Likud said.

In the document, they promised that their parties “will conduct coalition negotiations jointly and will enter any government only together. No party will hold any separate negotiations and won’t enter any government without all the rest of the parties.”

Additionally, the document says: “Our candidate for prime minister is Benjamin Netanyahu.”

The document was signed by Shaked and Smotrich despite both having expressed reservations about the idea earlier Thursday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with right-wing and Haredi faction leaders at his office in Jerusalem on September 18, 2019. (Courtesy Likud)

The united front was first announced on Wednesday, when Likud said the party chiefs had decided to set up a joint negotiation team for coalition talks and act as a “single right-wing bloc” moving forward. The all-or-nothing alliance would aim to prevent a different unity coalition, composed of Likud, Blue and White, and Yisrael Beytenu, which Liberman is pushing and that Gantz would seek to head. Liberman has also insisted that such a coalition pursue liberal policies that would preclude the inclusion of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

With almost all votes counted, the Orthodox/right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu has 55 seats, the centrist/left bloc led by Gantz has 44, and Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman holds the balance of power with eight. The predominantly Arab Joint List, which has not said whether it will actively back Gantz, has 13 seats.

Immediately after Thursday’s meeting with right-wing party leaders, Netanyahu called on Gantz, in the first of two direct appeals, to agree to a broad unity government that would rest upon on the bloc the prime minister has positioned himself to lead.

Netanyahu urged Gantz to meet with him for a one-on-one meeting later Thursday at “any time, any hour” to form the coalition by the end of the day.

“During the elections I called for establishing a right-wing government,” Netanyahu said in his statement. “But, to my regret, the results of the election show that is impossible. The people didn’t choose definitively between the two blocs; therefore there is no choice but to establish a broad unity government, as broad as possible, that comprises those elements who hold the State of Israel dear.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a faction meeting of his Likud party in Jerusalem on September 18, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

“Yesterday I met with members of the right-wing parties and we agreed that we are presenting a single bloc with a single joint representation for negotiations. I now call on you, MK Benny Gantz: We must establish a broad unity government today,” he said. “Let’s meet today, at any time, any hour, in order to initiate this process that is the order of the hour. We must not, and there is no reason to, go to third elections — I am against it.”

Blue and White dismissed the offer, with senior sources within the party telling Hebrew-language media that it was political spin by Netanyahu: “He has decided to go to third elections and is trying to foist the blame onto us. If he stepped aside, there would be a unity government within a day.

“Blue and and White is the biggest party, and Benny Gantz should form a unity government and head it,” the sources added.

“Netanyahu understands he lost and isn’t willing to accept the election results,” said a senior Blue and White member in a separate statement quoted in the media. “This is a desperate call to lead Israel to a third election instead of accepting the voters’ decision.”

Blue and White has repeatedly ruled out sitting in a government under Netanyahu, who is expected to face a criminal indictment in the coming months, pending a hearing. His political opponents warn that should be be named prime minister again, he would use the position to secure himself immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu and Gantz then met later Thursday morning at the memorial event for Peres. At President Rivlin’s urging, the two posed together for photos and shook hands.

At the event, Rivlin, who is now tasked with deciding who will get the first shot at forming a government, said he would do everything in his power to prevent another round of elections.

“The responsibility for that lies with the publicly elected officials, and specifically on those who head the two biggest parties,” he added.

Rivlin welcomed Netanyahu’s call for a unity government and said: “When faction representatives come to me, they will have to explain what they intend to do so that we get to see the formation of a government in Israel as soon as possible.”

In his speech at the event, Netanyahu implied he was open to a rotation agreement with Gantz to share the premiership, similar to the 1984 government, when Peres and Shamir signed a deal for each to lead the country for two years.

“Shimon believed in uniting our nation;  he and Shamir agreed to cooperate to steer Israel to safer grounds,” Netanyahu said, with Gantz in the audience. “Also in these elections there isn’t a clear-cut result. I urge you, Benny, as the president said: Let’s act together this time as well to bring Israel to safer grounds. I propose that we meet as soon as possible without preconditions.”

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