Rivlin to task Gantz with forming government after he receives 61 endorsements

Hawkish Yisrael Beytenu party leader Liberman joins Arab lawmakers in endorsing Blue and White leader for premier, giving him first shot at forming a government

President Reuven Rivlin and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz meet at the President's Residence on November 15, 2019 (Mark Neiman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz meet at the President's Residence on November 15, 2019 (Mark Neiman/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin announced Sunday that he will task Benny Gantz with forming a government after the Blue and White leader received the endorsement of a majority of Knesset members.

His announcement came shortly after Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman joined the Joint List and Labor-Gesher-Meretz parties in endorsing Gantz for prime minister. With the nod given by Liberman during consultations with Rivlin, Gantz picked up 61 of 120 recommendations, compared to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 58 endorsements.

Nevertheless, Rivlin said he would invite both Gantz and Netanyahu for talks on Sunday night, in an apparent bid to encourage a unity government between the two largest parties.

Netanyahu’s Likud won 36 Knesset seats in the national election — the third vote within a year — compared to Blue and White’s 33, but the Likud leader’s right-wing bloc again failed to muster a parliamentary majority.

President Reuven Rivlin hosts Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, March 15, 2020 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Once a close ally of Netanyahu’s Likud, the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu has refused to join a coalition led by Netanyahu after the previous two rounds of elections. Liberman in April 2019 backed Netanyahu for premier; he refrained from endorsing either candidate after the September vote.

Liberman’s backing for Gantz marked an unlikely alliance between the hawkish ex-defense minister, who has long condemned Arab lawmakers as “terrorist sympathizers,” and the predominantly Arab Joint List, with both aiming to unseat Netanyahu.

As of last week, Gantz’s only realistic path to a coalition appeared to be a center-left minority government backed on the outside by the Joint List, a controversial prospect that before the election the centrist leader vowed he would not pursue. Vocal opposition by rightist members of Blue and White, MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, along with Labor-Gesher-Meretz’s Orly Levy-Abekasis, who vowed to vote against a minority government, appeared to bury that scenario.

Rivlin’s invitation Sunday to Gantz and Netanyahu indicated the president was seeking to push a unity government. Efforts to force a unity government following the September vote were unsuccessful.

While giving Gantz its support earlier on Sunday, the Joint List specified that it would only back his efforts to form a center-left government that would replace Netanyahu, and not any moves toward a unity government.

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)

Party leader Ayman Odeh said if Gantz and Netanyahu decided to try and form a unity government, “we will be its biggest opponents.”

Odeh added that the hard-line Balad faction of the Joint List, which had been opposed to recommending Gantz, nevertheless made the “brave” decision to recommend him. After September’s election, the three members of Balad chose not to recommend Gantz though the rest of the Joint List did.

Amid increased protective measures due to the coronavirus crisis, Rivlin began his round of consultations with party representatives Sunday morning ahead of deciding whom to task with forming a government following the general election earlier this month.

After elections, Israel’s president has the responsibility of tasking one of the 120 elected MKs with cobbling together, and leading, a coalition that has the support of a majority of Knesset members.

Opening the consultations, which were being held with limited representation from each party and no press due to limitations on gatherings of over 10 people, Rivlin said that efforts to deal with the outbreak must not come “at the expense of Israeli democracy.”

“It is important that we follow the rules and instructions and do not give way to fear or panic. This is a trying time, not only for the health system and our economy, but for us all as a society,” Rivlin said in statements streamed online. “The success of the State of Israel in dealing with this extreme crisis lies in the hands of our civil society. Now is when we are asked to keep calm and to avoid hysteria.”

The number of Israelis diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, rose to 200 on Sunday morning. The Health Ministry said two of the sick remained in serious condition, with 11 in moderate condition and the rest suffering light symptoms only.

“Dealing with emergencies has never come at the expense of Israeli democracy, but has rather strengthened it and made our country, the State of Israel, more resilient. We are committed, more than ever, in light of the urgent need for a government, to hold essential democratic processes, even in a time of crisis,” Rivlin declared.

“These are not normal consultations; we need to work to form a government as soon as possible,” he warned.

President Reuven Rivlin meeting Likud party representatives during a round of consultations at his official residence in Jerusalem regarding determining a new prime minister, March 15, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Meeting first with representatives of Likud, the largest party, Rivlin repeatedly expressed support for a unity government, saying that it was the will of the voters and warning against the possibility of fourth elections if the deadlock wasn’t broken.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who has previously led Likud’s coalition negotiating team, told Rivlin that Likud had offered Blue and White two options to join a unity government.

The first option would be a half-year “emergency” government led by Netanyahu, in which Blue and White and Likud would receive an equal number of cabinet posts. For six months, the Likud leader would agree to refrain from firing any Blue and White ministers, and in exchange, MKs from the centrist alliance would be barred from supporting the toppling of the government in a no-confidence vote.

Alternatively, Netanyahu said he was prepared to discuss the idea of forming a four-year government, during which he would serve for the first two years as premier, with Gantz as his deputy, before they would switch places for an equal period of time.

“This is not the time for minority governments; this is not the time to make changes. It’s time for stability. It is a time for a government led by people with experience. The parties that supported Prime Minister Netanyahu won 58 seats, much more than Gantz supporters,” Levin said.

Slamming the idea of a minority government backed by the Joint List, Levin said, “Neither in routine times nor in emergencies is there room for a government that relies on people who do not accept Israel as a Jewish state and support terrorism.”

President Reuven Rivlin in consultations with representatives of Likud at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu himself urged Gantz to accept one of the two options.

“Faced with global and national emergencies, we must unite forces and establish a strong and stable government that can pass a budget and make tough decisions,” Netanyahu wrote in a Twitter thread detailing the proposals.

The premier also reiterated his call for Labor-Gesher-Meretz chairman Amir Peretz and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Liberman to join any government that would be formed.

“The State of Israel needs it. The people of Israel expect it,” he said.

Gantz, however, said in response: “Someone who wants unity doesn’t postpone their criminal trial at 1 a.m., and doesn’t send the media a ‘plan for emergency unity’ — but sends a negotiation team to meet. Unlike you, I will continue to back every correct action of the government without any political consideration. When you’re serious, we’ll talk.”

Hours earlier, the Jerusalem District Court announced that the premier’s trial would be delayed by two months until May 24 after Justice Minister Amir Ohana declared, in the middle of the night, a 24-hour “state of emergency” in Israel’s court system “as part of the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

The decision means that courts can only sit for urgent hearings on arrest and remand orders, administrative detention orders, offenses under legislation “relating to the special emergency” and certain interim relief in civil matters. Netanyahu’s case does not fall within the short list of exceptions.

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