Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday rallied his supporters against the Blue and White party, while urging his election challenger Benny Gantz to “show leadership” and join a Likud-led alliance of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Speaking at a Likud party event in Tel Aviv in honor of the Jewish new year, which begins Sunday evening, the prime minister railed against Gantz’s call for Likud to join a unity government without the scandal-plagued Netanyahu at its helm and accused the Blue and White party of trying to drive a wedge into the faction.
“The other side has all sorts of fantasies, I’d even say hallucinations,” Netanyahu charged. “First they thought they could break up the partnership in the nationalist camp between us and our partners [Shas, Yamina and United Torah Judaism].”
“That didn’t happen. We have strong partners. Our partnership is stronger than ever.
“So what are they fantasizing about now? Now they think they’ll be able to break up Likud. I ask you — are you going to let them tear apart Likud? Are you going to let them oust Likud’s chairman?”
The audience, numbering several hundred at the Tel Aviv Expo, shouted “No!”
“Benny Gantz,” Netanyahu continued, “listen carefully to these voices. I want you to understand something about the people sitting here together: We’ve been walking this path together for more than a day or two. We’ve walked together through fire and water. I’ll tell you something else, we don’t want to walk through fire and water, we want to walk on firm earth. We want the sure footing of a broad government of national unity.”
He added: “Now I say to you – Benny, the ball is in your court. I know you have all sorts of advisers telling you various things, but sometimes the right thing to do is also the simple thing. Stand up, show leadership, and come to a unity government.”
Netanyahu on Wednesday was tasked with forming a government, based on the strength of his pact with Yamina, Shas and UTJ to negotiate as a bloc. However, without enough seats for a governing coalition, he is widely expected to return the mandate to President Reuven Rivlin, leading to speculation that a third round of elections may be in the offing as political deadlock persists.
Netanyahu’s speech came just hours after Gantz issued a similar call for Netanyahu and his Likud party to begin talks on forming a unity government, but one led by Gantz and his Blue and White party.
At a Blue and White faction meeting in Tel Aviv, Gantz said the focus of coalition talks should be not on doling out ministerial portfolios but on the next government’s policies.
“The post is not important. Why is it important who holds what portfolio? This should be discussed only after the substance,” he said. “I am not looking to be prime minister for the sake of the honors. I asked for the public’s trust to carry out a mission.”
Gantz added that his faction had no personal animus toward Netanyahu, but said its refusal to partner with Likud so long as Netanyahu was the party’s leader was due to the pending indictments the prime minister faces in a series of graft investigations.
Gantz has ruled out his Blue and White alliance joining a government led by a prime minister facing serious criminal charges.
“We’re not simply, ‘Not Bibi.’ We’re not attacking him on a personal level. We want integrity in public life,” Gantz said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “We want to act against corruption and can’t sit with a prime minister against whom there are active indictments.”
The exchange Thursday highlighted the two men’s predicament. After Netanyahu failed to piece together a coalition following the April 9 election, he forced a new vote to avoid letting Gantz have a chance at forming the government. The second election was held on September 17, but voters delivered an even more deadlocked result.
Gantz’s Blue and White won 33 seats, ahead of Likud’s 32 out of a total 120 seats in the Knesset. Neither has a clear path to a majority coalition.
After the two leaders failed to agree on a unity government in meetings convened by Rivlin earlier this week, the president on Wednesday gave Netanyahu the first chance to cobble together a coalition.
Netanyahu now has 28 days to form a government, with a possible two-week extension. If the attempt fails, Rivlin can then assign the task to another MK.
Earlier Thursday, Likud ministers said the party was open to the idea of a compromise power-sharing deal with Blue and White in a unity government.
“We are ready and willing to negotiate on the basis of the framework presented by the president. The direction that he proposed is correct,” said Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, a Likud negotiator in the coalition talks, in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster. “This alternative is not what we had hoped for, but it’s much better than a third election.”
Speaking on Wednesday night, Rivlin said he had proposed a unity government in which power would be equally divided, and arrangements by which an “interim prime minister” would enjoy all prime ministerial authority if he was forced to take a leave of absence.
He stressed that Israelis do not want a third round of elections, saying “the public will pay the price” of a failure by Netanyahu and Gantz to find common ground.
“Blue and White led by me will not agree to sit in a government with a leader facing a serious indictment,” Gantz said Wednesday.
Netanyahu is facing indictments, pending a hearing next week, in three corruption cases, one of which includes a count of bribery. He denies all the charges.
On Thursday, Netanyahu urged Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to allow his pre-indictment hearing to be broadcast live, but Mandelblit rejected the “unprecedented” suggestion, labeling it a media stunt.