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Gantz tries to unite front against Netanyahu

Israeli Defense Minister and Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz is gearing up for the country’s 23 March elections by trying to form a broad alliance of political factions aimed at defeating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.

The National Unity Government formed between the two major parties in May collapsed in December, triggering another snap election that will be Israel’s fourth Israel’s 4th in just 2 years.

Gantz, the former IDF Chief of Staff and political novice, had come close to ending Prime Minister Netanyahu’s long dominance of Israeli politics in three elections held since 2019.

Likud and Blue and White emerged as the two biggest parties winning around 35 seats each during the nation’s last vote in March 2020, but neither Gantz nor Netanyahu secured enough votes to form a government. As the coronavirus pandemic mounted, Gantz backtracked on his election promise and joined an emergency unity government headed by Netanyahu in May, taking on the positions of Alternate Premier and Defense Minister. The coalition pact also included a power-sharing rotation that would see Gantz’ assumption of the premiership from Netanyahu in November 2021; an accord many political analysts were skeptical would hold.

The 61-year-old leader’s reversal of his primary election pledge to form a government without Netanyahu alienated constituents and enraged allies, causing a party split with about half of the Blue and White members quitting as his own popularity plummeted in opinion polls.

The centrist party is now however on the verge of demise as key members bolted the faction, which polls currently reveal is just teetering on the edge of the threshold of votes required to enter parliament.

Gantz’s party deputy Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi announced his departure from the Blue and White to take a break from politics, although he is likely to stay on in his current capacity until after the March election. Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn defected to form a new center-left movement, and other members also resigned.

“The race for the exit from B&W is reaching stampede proportions,” political analyst for the liberal Haaretz newspaper Anshel Pfeffer told Reuters.

With anger mounting against Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus crisis from across the political spectrum, the main threat to the prime minister appears to be a defector from his own party. Former Likud Minister Gideon Sa’ar has formed the rightwing New Hope party has emerged as a major challenge to Netanyahu’s hold on power.

Sa’ar has accused Netanyahu, who is under criminal indictment for corruption, of putting his own interest ahead of the nation’s. Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has dismissed the allegation.

61 mandates are needed to form the next government.

A 9 January public opinion poll by the Jerusalem Posts revealed the following results in the 120-member Knesset: Likud 28, New Hope 18, centrist Yesh Atid 14, rightwing Yamina 13, Joint Arab List 10, ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas 8 and United Torah Judaism 7, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu 7, The Israelis new centrist party formed by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai 6, leftwing Meretz 5 and Blue and White at a lowly 4.

Yet another new centrist political party called Telem was formed after Knesset Member (MK) Moshe Yaalon officially broke away from Blue and White’s former ally Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid.

Former Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Dov Lipman observed that there are now 10 center-left parties battling for around 25-30 mandates: Yesh Atid, Telem, Blue and White, The Israelis, Meretz headed by Nitzan Horowitz, Labor led by Amir Peretz, HaTnufa led by former Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelach, the Economy Party headed by former Finance Ministry Accountant General Yaron Zelekha, the Pensioners Party chaired by former Mossad Director Danny Yatom, and the Democratic Party led by Ehud Shapiro, a Weizmann Institute Professor who has emerged as a leader in anti-Netanyahu protests.

“The center-left is continuing to hurt itself with these splinter parties.  I should also add that the country in general has shifted to the right and looking at the polls, the only realistic candidates for prime minister who can form a coalition are on the right,” Rabbi Lipman told TV7.

Gantz and Netanyahu furiously accused the other of responsibility for the government dissolution and violation of their May deal.

The former IDF Chief, who also serves as Alternate Premier, delivered an address to the Israeli public last night. In an attempt to overcome distrust caused by his coalition pact with Netanyahu, he began, “I, Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz, a soldier for the State of Israel, wish to speak to you directly. All of you who believed in me and were disappointed. All of you who gave me the most important thing a citizen in a democracy can give: your vote and your faith that I would bring change. Three times in a row. And three times in a row we did manage to prevent a dangerous extremist government which would have given Bibi immunity.”

According to a statement TV7 obtained from the Blue and White media team, Gantz explained that he “shook the hand of a serial promise-breaker” as “a soldier for the State of Israel [who] chose to show up” in the “war for our lives, health, livelihoods and unity” against the outbreak of the coronavirus. “I shook the hand of the person I had promised to replace. I shook his hand, because the State of Israel was at war, and I am, above all, a soldier. I was wrong,” he conceded.

“While a pandemic is raging, threatening all of our lives, Bibi hasn’t stopped inciting, being divisive and polarizing, and tearing us apart from the inside. Only because it serves his personal interest. Only because it is expedient to his desire to evade trial. He cheated me. He cheated you. But he has cheated one too many times…And you’re on your way out, Bibi. On your way to court. We’ll make sure of it,” Gantz vowed.

Calling on political leaders to join forces to end Netanyahu’s more than decade-long reign, Gantz added, “This is a moment of emergency. We cannot allow him to dissolve us into fragments. The threat is real that the opportunity will pass if we stay spread out across so many different factions. That is why I call upon everyone who cares about this country, everyone who won’t join Bibi: let go of ego and come together, now.”

The office of the Defense Minister and Blue and White Chairman invited the leaders of Yesh Atid, The Israelis, Meretz, Telem Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor, HaTnufa and Economy parties to attend a meeting tonight at 8 PM to discuss unification.

“I don’t think he has a role to play any longer.  He tried and it failed,” veteran political analyst Rabbi Lipman told TV7 when asked about Gantz’ chance of success in his unity campaign. “As for the others, I don’t see Lapid or Huldai yielding the number one spot to form one large party,” he added.

In related developments, the Israeli Finance Ministry announced a 2020 national budget deficit of ₪160.3 billion shekels ($50.4 billion) representing 11.7% of gross domestic product, as the state’s spending soared as it sought to support the economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

The government approved a multi-year stimulus package of more than ₪208 billion shekels last year to help businesses and households cope with the negative impact caused by the disease; of which about ₪140 billion shekels was on budgetary spending and the rest in social security and state-backed loans to banks to encourage credit supply.

Spending last year was somewhat restrained due to the lack of a 2020 state budget stemming from political infighting. Israel has been using a pro-rated version of the 2019 budget that was approved in 2018.

($1 = ₪3.1786 shekels)

— By Erin Viner