Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday took aim at his rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, saying the prospect of a minority government that is propped up by the Arab-majority Joint List would be a “slap in the face of IDF soldiers that we sent into battle together.”
Gantz, who was IDF chief of staff during the 2014 Gaza war, has neither signaled willingness to establish such a government nor denied reports that the option is on the table.
Such a government would be “a threat to Israel’s security,” Netanyahu charged, speaking at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper and the Bnei Akiva youth movement.
Gantz is currently tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with assembling a ruling coalition, after Netanyahu tried and failed to do so after the September elections. Both don’t have a clear path to a government without joining forces with one another for a unity government.
In the kingmaker position is Yisrael Beytenu Avigdor Liberman, who on Saturday presented a challenge to both Netanyahu and Gantz, saying that if either of them failed to back a unity government according to a proposal set out by Rivlin and accept tough compromises in order to form a coalition together, he would walk back his commitment to a national unity government and support a minority government led by the candidate willing to compromise. This presumably referred to either a narrow right-wing government with Netanyahu and his allies, or a minority government headed by Gantz and backed from outside by the Joint List.
In essence, Liberman was demanding that Netanyahu sever ties with his so-called bloc of ultra-Orthodox and hard-right MKs and that Gantz allow Netanyahu to serve as premier first in a power-sharing deal.
Addressing Gantz, the premier said in his speech: “Benny, you were IDF chief of staff during Operation Protective Edge,” referring to the 2014 Gaza war. “We managed that operation together. We sent combat fighters to battle.”
Netanyahu then cited actions taken at the time by Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi to protest the military offensive, namely claiming Israel was committing war crimes while calling for an investigation. He also mentioned a recent election clip by the Joint List saying Gantz’s hands were “drenched with the blood of Gazan children.”
“And I ask you, Benny Gantz: Are those the people you want to form a government with?” Netanyahu said. “A government that would depend on Ahmad Tibi and [Joint List leader] Ayman Odeh? That would be a direct slap in the face of IDF soldiers, the combat fighters that you and I sent to battle. It’s simply unbelievable. Let go of that insane idea.”
Blue and White responded with a tweet, saying: “Netanyahu, we don’t need lessons from you on patriotism and the love of the land and the nation. The citizens of Israel won’t forgive you if you drag us to another expensive and unnecessary election due to your legal situation.”
Netanyahu has corruption charges pending against him in three criminal cases, including for bribery in one. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is due to announce his final decision on the matter in the near future, possibly by the end of the month.
Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid also responded on Twitter: “You really want to speak about a ‘slap in the face of IDF soldiers?’ IDF soldiers have suffered so many slaps in the face by you that you have lost the right to speak in their name.” In wasn’t clear what he was referring to.
Netanyahu, in his speech, again dismissed Liberman’s ultimatum, saying the Yisrael Beytenu leader was “maneuvering with all sorts of ultimatums… [he and Gantz are] ruling out people who wear kippahs, but going together to a government that would depend on these Knesset members who hate Israel.”
Liberman, in a statement Monday, repeated his demands of Netanyahu and Gantz and denied the premier’s claim that he was seeking personal gains.
“As the prime minister himself said yesterday, a lie that is repeated many times doesn’t become truth,” he said. “I have no personal motive and no vendetta against him… any intelligent person understands that I am acting logically and responsibly.”
Gantz’s and Liberman’s parties said in a statement Monday that both leaders would meet Tuesday at Kfar Maccabiah at 4:30 p.m. The two parties have already reached some agreements on future government policy.
Gantz earlier Monday said his party would be willing to consider compromising on some of its positions in the interest of forming a broad unity government alongside Likud and Yisrael Beytenu.
He did not provide any further details on what those compromises might entail.
He also took a shot at Netanyahu, calling on him to focus government-building negotiations on “what interests Israeli citizens — and not just what interests you.”
In a direct appeal to Netanyahu, Gantz claimed the premier was “refusing to discuss the essential issues that are plaguing Israeli citizens.” He urged him to work toward “direct, genuine and honest negotiations.”
In setting out his power-sharing idea in September, Rivlin implied that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when 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.
A major stumbling block in talks between Likud and Blue and White is Netanyahu’s conditioning the government on the inclusion of his right-wing and religious political allies, as well as Gantz’s refusal to serve under a prime minister suspected of criminal wrongdoing.
The two major parties have regularly blamed each other for the lack of progress in negotiations and sought to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to a third round of elections.
On Sunday Liberman called into question the leadership qualities of both Netanyahu and Gantz for their failure to consider compromise.
Liberman has been seen as political kingmaker since a second election was called this year.
It was his refusal to join a Likud-led right-wing government after the April vote — over a disagreement with the ultra-Orthodox parties — that led to Netanyahu dissolving the 120-member parliament and calling fresh elections. In the September elections, he jumped from five seats to eight, further increasing his clout.
Gantz has until November 20 to form a government.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.