Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, kicked off his election campaign on Monday, accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of leading the country into “total chaos” and slamming his decision to call another national poll five months after the last one a “farce” and a “national joke.”
“We are witnessing one big farce, an outrage, a disgrace, a national joke costing NIS 4-5 billion [$1.1-1.4 billion],” Gantz charged during a Blue and White faction meeting in the Knesset.
“The citizens of Israel know we are going to elections only because Bibi wants to save himself,” he added, using Netanyahu’s nickname and alluding to the prime minister’s apparent efforts to scuttle pending indictments against him. “Netanyahu could have returned the mandate to the president, and we would have formed a government. Why is he not doing that?”
After failing last week to bridge the gap between the ultra-Orthodox parties and the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party in his efforts to build a coalition, Netanyahu opted not to give President Reuven Rivlin the chance to task another lawmaker — such as Gantz — with forming a government. Instead, he chose to dissolve the Knesset and go immediately to an unprecedented election in September, mere months after the previous elections in April.
However, the chances of Gantz managing to form a government in that scenario were extremely slim, since the Arab parties have never joined a coalition and the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties wouldn’t support him, leaving him with the potential support of just 45 lawmakers — the Blue and White, Labor and Meretz parties — far short of the necessary 61, barring a stream of defections from the right.
Mentioning initiatives touted by Netanyahu and his allies that would restrict the High Court’s ability to strike down decisions by the Knesset and cabinet, and would grant the prime minister immunity from prosecution, Gantz said the premier was in a position where he “has to legislate the override and immunity laws, and has to create a legal fortress for himself even at the cost of billions of shekels.”
“There are five billion reasons not to vote Netanyahu,” he declared. “This is total egotism leading to nationwide chaos. I am here to stop this madness. I am here to lead Blue and White to victory in the upcoming elections.”
Gantz and Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid announced Sunday that they were keeping their deal to rotate the premiership if they form the next government. During the last election campaign, the party leaders ran under a rotation agreement that would have seen Gantz serve as prime minister for the first two years and eight months, and Lapid take over for the remainder of the term, had the party won the vote. The agreement was key to the merger of Gantz’s Israel Resilience with Lapid’s Yesh Atid.
“Contrary to speculation and false rumors, Blue and White will run in the next election in the same format that led to the incredible achievement of 35 seats only months ago, including the rotation between Gantz and Lapid,” the party said.
Lapid on Sunday evening tweeted a photo of a meeting at his home of the party’s leadership quartet: Gantz, Lapid and former army chiefs of staff Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi.
Referring to that decision, Gantz said approvingly on Monday: “There is partnership in Blue and White’s leadership. Yair Lapid paid a political price for such a move. Bogie and Gabi and all of you are committed to Blue and White’s win, and before anything else, to the State of Israel.”
Lapid warned that if the party doesn’t win, “there won’t be democracy here. Our children’s fate depends on this. We got a second chance. For all the wrong reasons, the right thing happened. Bibi tried to establish a government of extortionists and extremists that would get him out of jail. He failed. He wanted to be a dictator like [Turkish autocratic Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, he failed.
“The State of Israel told him: ‘That’s it, you overstepped. We don’t work for you,'” he added. “We got a second chance, which doesn’t happen often in life. A second chance to form a national unity government, headed by Benny Gantz, that will first of all calm the situation.”
Embattled Labor chairman Avi Gabbay on Friday said his center-left party should merge with either Meretz or Blue and White ahead of the September poll.
Gantz appeared to dismiss that option on Monday, saying: “We are beginning our campaign now and don’t see the need for anything else.”
The first surveys issued since new elections were called last week have seen Blue and White polling slightly lower than its current number of Knesset seats at 33-34 seats, though that difference is within the margin of error.
Before the Knesset dissolved on Wednesday night, Likud had attempted to bring Blue and White members into the coalition with offers of top ministries, future diplomatic postings and even promised amendments to the so-called Jewish nation-state law.
Likud’s overtures were rebuffed.
On Saturday Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud expressed support for a potential future coalition with Blue and White if the party stops “ruling out” Netanyahu as a potential partner.
Hanegbi said the two parties could form “a unity government with impressive achievements.”
But Likud quickly distanced itself from his comments, saying they “were his own. Likud and the prime minister wish to form a strong right-wing government led by a large Likud and Netanyahu.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.