Riffing on Elvis, Netanyahu warns of ‘heavy price’ if no unity government
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'It’s now or later' for unity government, says PM

Riffing on Elvis, Netanyahu warns of ‘heavy price’ if no unity government

PM does not mention possible Likud leadership contest or Lapid unity offer in speech to newly sworn-in Knesset; says Iran working to wipe out Israel

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches rival Benny Gantz as they and other party leaders including Avigdor Liberman and Aryeh Deri prepare to pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches rival Benny Gantz as they and other party leaders including Avigdor Liberman and Aryeh Deri prepare to pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again called for a “broad national unity government” to stave off a third round of elections in less than a year, saying the country’s security challenges demanded political stability and a broad-based government.

Speaking to the freshly sworn in Knesset, Netanyahu made no mention of possible Likud plans to call a snap leadership primary, or an offer made by Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid to drop his own rotation with Benny Gantz to pave the way for a unity deal, two political bombshells dropped in the hours before that could significantly shake up Israel’s political landscape.

Instead, Netanyahu stuck to his calls for a unity government to be formed under his leadership given what he described as dire security challenges facing the state.

“We are not the only ones who suffer from this problem,” Netanyahu told the members of the 22nd Knesset. “But we don’t have the luxury of this problem. No one faces as many challenges as we face, no other country. And democracies that don’t grasp that you need to unite in a time of danger suffer a heavy price.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu has sought to force his main election challenger, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, to join a coalition led by him and composed of right-wing and Haredi parties. Gantz has so far refused to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu as long as the Likud leader faces corruption indictments.

The plenum hall of the Knesset during the opening ceremony of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In his Thursday comments, Netanyahu warned Israel faced a dire challenge from Iran, a challenge that called for the formation of a broad government.

“This isn’t spin, it’s not a whim, this is not ‘Netanyahu trying to scare us,’” he said.

“Anyone who knows the situation knows that Iran is getting stronger and is attacking around the world, saying clearly, ‘Israel will disappear.’ They believe it, they are working toward it, we need to take them seriously. That reality obligates us to act. Remember my words and heed them. I am telling you things from the depth of my devotion for the people of Israel. These things are happening around us and have immediate ramifications for us. This challenge requires a government with broad shoulders,” he said.

“I’ll quote an Elvis Presley song: ‘It’s now or never.’ But I’ll amend it a little — it’s now or later,” he said, suggesting a unity government would be formed in any case.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the heads of the rest of the factions in the 22nd Knesset pose for a group picture during the opening ceremony of the newly election parliament, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“The right thing to do now is to [finalize a unity government]. But if we don’t do it now, then [we’ll still have to do it] after I return the mandate [to President Rivlin], and Benny Gantz returns the mandate, and the final 21 days pass” for forming a coalition.

“Please act responsibly. Let’s do it immediately,” he said.

Shortly after Netanyahu’s comments, Gantz repeated his call for scandal-plagued Netanyahu to step aside.

“If he vacates his position, there will be a unity government within an hour,” he told reporters at the Knesset.

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

In the face of Gantz’s demand that he step aside to deal with his corruption investigations, Netanyahu has worked hard to unite Likud and other right-wing and Haredi parties behind his continued leadership.

On Thursday, Likud announced Netanyahu was considering holding “flash primaries” for party leader in an attempt to quell rumors that senior party members were working to unseat him.

“The aim of the move is to shatter the illusion of a Likud rebellion, which hinders [other parties] from joining a unity government,” the Likud statement read.

The announcement prompted a bombshell response from Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, who posted a terse tweet reading, “I’m ready.”

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar attends a Likud faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Such a battle would mark the first primary challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership in five years.

Asked to elaborate as he arrived at the swearing-in of parliament on Thursday afternoon, Sa’ar first ducked reporters’ questions, but then said he had made his position clear and would say more “when there’s a need” to do so.

Sa’ar is a longtime rival of the prime minister. Netanyahu earlier this year accused Sa’ar of planning a “putsch” against him, a claim Sa’ar called “fake news.” The prime minister sought to keep Sa’ar off the Likud’s Knesset slate, but the former education minister won widespread support to secure a leading spot in elections for the slate in February, and is No. 6 on the Likud list in the incoming Knesset.

Asked in an Army Radio interview Thursday evening if he’d made a decision on holding the primary, Netanyahu would only say, “You’ll hear my decision very soon.”

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