Unity government looms as Gantz seeks speakership, rending Blue and White

Unity government looms as Gantz seeks speakership, rending Blue and White

Party leader submits candidacy to be Knesset speaker, suggesting he’s considering joining unity government; move opposed by Yair Lapid

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

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz (R) and No. 2 Yair Lapid at a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz (R) and No. 2 Yair Lapid at a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz on Thursday offered himself as a candidate for Knesset speaker to the Knesset Secretariat, a move strongly suggesting he is seeking to join an emergency unity government, and leading to a split in his own party due to the opposition of its No. 2, Yair Lapid, and his faction.

After a bitter fight with Likud, Blue and White had been set to approve its MK Meir Cohen, from Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction, with the backing of 61 of the 120 MKs. Blue and White would then have gained control of the parliamentary agenda.

But Gantz’s surprise candidacy blows that plan out of the window, tearing a rift in the center of Blue and White, and leaving open the option of a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In response to the decision, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and MK Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem factions filed to split from the Blue and White merger.

Cohen has withdrawn his candidacy, but members of the Yesh Atid faction of the Blue and White alliance will not vote for Gantz as speaker, a Yesh Atid official told The Times of Israel.

Instead, Gantz will receive the support of the entire right-wing bloc, ensuring his victory, Channel 12 reported.

Sources close to Gantz reportedly told the channel that a unity deal between his Israel Resilience faction and Likud is not a done deal, but he wanted to leave the option open — something that would not be possible if Yesh Atid’s Cohen was appointed speaker.

The emerging coalition will include the Labor party, which will split from the Meretz party, the channel said. (Later reports suggested Labor’s inclusion was not certain.) Gantz will only be Knesset speaker for a brief time and once a unity government is formed, he will be appointed foreign minister while the speakership will return to Likud.

Fellow former IDF chief of staff MK Gabi Ashkenazi will be the defense minister and MK Chili Tropper will be the justice minister.

Gantz will ostensibly become prime minister in 18 months — in September 2021.

A composite image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz at polling stations in Jerusalem and Rosh Haayin, respectively, during the Knesset Elections on March 2, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL, AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Netanyahu and Gantz had discussed the possibility of setting up an emergency government to tackle the coronavirus Wednesday, taking a rare actual step toward a much-touted unity coalition.

In recent days, Likud and Blue and White have clashed over the latter’s bid to call a Knesset vote to replace Yuli Edelstein as parliament speaker. Likud had warned that if Edelstein were replaced, that would be the end of unity talks.

On Wednesday morning Edelstein resigned as speaker rather than call the vote on his own successor, as ordered by the High Court two days earlier.

On Thursday, the Knesset Arrangements Committee approved Labor MK Amir Peretz’s request to convene the plenum at 4 p.m. for a vote on the next Knesset speaker, in accordance with a separate High Court ruling late Wednesday.

After Wednesday night’s phone conversation between them, Netanyahu and Gantz said in a joint statement that they had agreed that negotiators from their two parties would resume coalition talks on Thursday.

“Against the backdrop of the escalating coronavirus [crisis] and the president’s appeal [for unity], the two instructed their teams to return to the negotiating table tomorrow in order to examine the possible formation of a national emergency government,” both parties said.

Even though Netanyahu and Gantz have talked up the option of unity for the last two weeks, negotiations between their parties have failed to move forward.

Gantz was tasked on March 16 with forming a government after 61 lawmakers backed him as prime minister, and given 28 days to do so.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz with forming a government in a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Despite having the backing of 61 MKs for the premiership, Gantz is stuck with no straightforward path to a government, with members of his party objecting to cooperating with the Arab-led Joint List even in a minority government. His Blue and White ruled out that option Tuesday, according to several Hebrew media reports.

Blue and White doesn’t have any alternative route to a government, since all the other parties in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc are refusing to break their loyalty to the premier by even holding negotiations on the matter.

The centrist party has publicly vowed not to join a government headed by Netanyahu, though it has said it could serve alongside another Likud chairman should Netanyahu, who is facing criminal charges, step aside. But Likud leaders have rallied behind Netanyahu despite the grave allegations against him.

Blue and White has also expressed opposition to joining an “emergency government” with Likud just to battle the pandemic, believing it would be sidelined in such a coalition and preferring instead to let Netanyahu handle the crisis alone, for better or worse.

But the sides have also seemingly signaled the possibility that they could unify.

On Wednesday, Channel 13 news reported that Likud had agreed to give up its hold on the Justice Ministry, allowing Blue and White to appoint MK Chili Tropper in case of a unity deal.

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. At left is Benny Gantz. Center, with back to camera, is Benjamin Netanyahu (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic was a crucial time in which leadership and national responsibility had to be exercised, claiming the disagreements between the rivals regarding the specifics of a unity government are small and can be overcome.

“The citizens of Israel need a unity government that would act to save their lives and livelihoods,” he said, addressing Gantz. “This isn’t time for fourth elections. Let’s meet now and form a government today. I am waiting for you.”

He repeated the plea on Wednesday, tweeting that “we need to set this aside. We are one nation and one people and the order of the day is unity. I am calling for an immediate national unity government to deal with the crisis.”

After seeming to soften his position in recent days, Gantz said Tuesday he was demanding to go first as prime minister in a rotating premiership deal.

“I have an expectation and a demand for a unity government headed by me,” he told activists from his party who had demonstrated outside his house, calling on him to form a unity coalition rather than a minority government propped up by the Joint List.

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