Opposition’s Lapid says willing to repartner with Gantz — if he’s leader

Yesh Atid head says he’s willing to do anything to end Netanyahu’s rule, but he can no longer trust his former partner to lead the camp

Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid speaks during a Knesset plenum session on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool/Flash90)
Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid speaks during a Knesset plenum session on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Friday he would be willing to once again join up with his erstwhile political partner Benny Gantz — if the Blue and White leader agrees to give him the alliance’s top spot.

As the dysfunctional unity coalition between Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to barrel toward its ignominious end mere months after its establishment, Lapid told Channel 12 he was willing to do “whatever’s necessary to replace this government.”

He added: “If I’m leading — call him up, we’ll seal the deal.”

Lapid said he was even willing to partner with his nemeses in the ultra-Orthodox parties if that was what it took to remove Netanyahu from power.

Gantz and Lapid joined their respective Israel Resilience and Yesh Atid parties ahead of the April 2019 general election to form Blue and White. The centrist alliance, which vowed not to join a Netanyahu-led government, weathered the next two elections as Israel suffered an unprecedented political crisis that saw the country go to three national votes in less than a year, with neither Netanyahu nor his opponents able to form a government.

Gantz finally agreed to form a power-sharing government with Netanyahu following the third election in March of this year, which led to the breakup of Blue and White (though Gantz retained the name). A furious Lapid refused to be part of the deal, insisting Netanyahu could not be trusted.

Yair Lapid (left) and Benny Gantz speak to supporters in Tel Aviv, on February 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Under the Gantz-Netanyahu agreement, Netanyahu would serve as prime minister until November of 2021, at which point Gantz would take over. However, the coalition has been ridden with mistrust and infighting since day one, and Gantz is believed to suspect Netanyahu has no intention of allowing him to become premier as per the deal, and intends to break for elections before that can happen.

The parties are now fighting over the state budget, and a failure to pass it by year’s end will automatically trigger new elections, which at this point appear all but inevitable.

Lapid railed against the current government, saying it had failed in its stated purpose of guiding Israel through the coronavirus crisis, with the economy hit hard, large parts of the public failing to adhere to health guidelines and Israelis exasperated with the coalition’s chaotic stewardship.

“When you can’t trust the leaders on anything, you ask yourself: ‘Why should I be disciplined’ [regarding the pandemic],” Lapid said.

“Benny Gantz is a good guy, he really is… But you can’t trust someone who collapsed at the moment of truth,” he said.

Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Yair Lapid at a faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I’m not willing to be number 2 to those I can’t trust to keep their word. I will lead the camp in the next election.”

There has been increasing rhetoric from Blue and White lawmakers — led by Gantz himself — indicating that the current unity government is coming to an end over the budget issue and cabinet squabbling that has hampered governance.

Gantz has become frustrated by the continued delays in passing the two-year state budget for this year and next, which would all but guarantee he would become prime minister. Netanyahu is widely believed to be stalling on the budget in order to call snap elections and avoid an agreed-upon handover of power next year.

Senior members of the Blue and White party have threatened to splinter off and form an opposition faction if Gantz gives in to Netanyahu in their dispute over the state budget.

Earlier this week, one member of the potential breakaway group told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s sister site in Hebrew, that every day the unity government continues is “a disaster.”

“This government needs to be dismantled,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Zman. “It is a harmful government, the worst in the history of the country. Every additional day is a disaster.”

Some in Blue and White are pushing for the entire party to not wait any further and want to immediately disband the Knesset and call new elections. That hardline camp includes Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and MKs Assaf Zamir and Miki Haimovich, among others, although they are not fully decided on the matter.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

On Tuesday Gantz publicly appealed to Netanyahu to pass the budget, saying that failure to do so would be a “crime” against the citizenry.

Speaking in the Knesset plenum, Gantz said time was running out on the budget. “It’s in your hands whether to prevent an economic and social disaster and do the right thing for the citizens of Israel.”

Later, during a visit to Jerusalem City Hall, Gantz warned that “the hourglass is running out” on the budget and Israel would soon be headed for another round of elections.

However, a concern for Gantz is Blue and White’s recent polling numbers, which have predicted the party would dive to just 10 MKs if elections were held, while Netanyahu, at the head of a diminished Likud party, would still be able to form a majority right-wing bloc. Blue and White currently has 14 MKs, as well as Gantz who resigned from the Knesset to focus on ministerial duties in a move allowed under Knesset regulations.

On Sunday the Kan public broadcaster reported that Gantz met with the leader of the opposition right-wing Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, to discuss the possibility of dissolving the government and triggering a new vote.

Members of Blue and White have also reportedly met with Lapid in order to coordinate their moves.

The Knesset last passed a state budget in March 2018. Israel has limped through 2020 without a state budget, even though the coalition agreement signed by Blue and White and Likud in April agreed that a two-year 2020-2021 budget would be passed in the summer.

To prevent either side from bringing down the government, the power-sharing deal stipulates that if one side triggers a coalition collapse, the other automatically receives the premiership for the three months leading up to an election as well as the transition period in its wake.

But one of the few loopholes in that deal says the failsafe does not occur if the sides fail to pass a budget, leading to early elections.

Netanyahu has demanded a single-year budget, in contravention of the deal, citing the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Blue and White suspects he wants to leave himself a window to bring down the government during 2021 budget talks next year.

The initial budget deadline had been in August, with a failure to pass the 2020-2021 budget by then requiring the Knesset to dissolve. But Likud and Blue and White agreed to a last-minute compromise that gave the parties until December 23.

Shalom Yerushalmi contributed to this report.

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