Photo: Flash90

Netanyahu and Gantz move closer to unity government in surprise development

In stunning shift of Israel’s political stage, Benny Gantz has been elected Knesset Speaker in a surprise maneuver that could herald a unity government that would keep his rival Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in power but shattered his own party.

The parliament had convened on Thursday to elect a replacement for outgoing speaker Yuli Edelstein, who is a Member of Knesset (MK) belonging to the Prime Minister’s Likud Party. Edelstein abruptly resigned on Wednesday after the High Court of Justice ruled that he had to hold a plenum vote for his successor in the wake of the 2 March elections. Edelstein had refused on grounds that political leaders were in the midst of holding negotiations toward the formation of the next government, while critics believed it was a power-play aimed at preserving Netanyahu’s hold on the premiership ahead of looming prosecution on corruption charges.

A fierce internal conflict erupted within the Blue and White party just ahead of yesterday’s slated vote for Knesset Speaker after Gantz unexpectedly submitted his candidacy for the position even though it had been agreed it would go to faction member MK Meir Cohen. The 33-member Blue and White had been a political alliance of Gantz’ Israel Resilience faction, Yesh Atid led by MK Yair Lapid and former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem.

Likud faction Chairman MK Miki Zohar had previously insisted any further negotiations between the two parties would be terminated immediately if Cohen assumed the speakership because he is a member of Yesh Atid – which has ardently opposed the formation of a national unity government as long as Netanyahu remained at Likud’s helm.  Gantz had also long ruled out serving with Netanyahu, citing the prime minister’s upcoming trial in May on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – which he denies.

Netanyahu has proposed a “national emergency” government with Gantz to help tackle the coronavirus crisis. Gantz said he intended to advance towards a unity government, and that he had opted to put himself up for the Speaker’s office to promote a deal. He refused to withdraw his candidacy, and he was ultimately elected by the newly sworn-in parliament in a vote of 74 to 18, with only Gantz’ former allies opposing. The balloting appeared somber in a reflection of the gravity of the health crisis, necessitating parliamentarians to enter the Knesset’s near-empty main chamber one-by-one in order to maintain social distancing.

The surprise twist in 48 hours of political drama plunged Gantz’s Blue and White Party into disarray just 13 months after it came into existence as a coalition of centrist, Netanyahu opponents intent on bringing down the 70-year-old right-winger; who is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Gantz left many of his own political allies fuming over the smoothing of a path to partnership with a politician under criminal indictment, but the decision leaves open the possibility of a “rotation” deal in which he and Netanyahu would take turns as prime minister. Each has insisted on going first, following three inconclusive national elections in less than a year. Even though Gantz had officially been tasked by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to form the next government, his prospects of building a successful coalition appeared slim as the country remained mired in political deadlock.

Gantz hailed his election as Speaker in an address to the Knesset, saying that “Israeli democracy has prevailed” and “shown itself to be non-negotiable.” After saying he would like to “use this podium to reach out to all of my political partners,” Gantz justified his actions by saying, “These are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions. That’s why I intend to explore the formation of a national emergency government. I will never compromise on the principles underpinning the votes of over a million Israelis who voted for Blue and White. I will never compromise on democracy. Netanyahu is well aware of that. And we’ve made it amply apparent over the past few days. I proved it and we all proved it together.”

Expressing pride in the founding of the Blue and White, Gantz said “It has been my intention, and it is still my intention, to do everything possible to keep us together. I urge all of my potential political partners to act in the same spirit. The people of Israel are justifiably looking to us, and expecting us to keep supporting the sacred battle against the coronavirus and its effects. And, no less justifiably, they are demanding that we safeguard our democracy, our national decorum, and sense of unity.”

“My fellow members of Knesset, the nation’s faith in our Parliament and in government institutions is at a low-point. The enormous tension roiling Israeli society, and the uncertainty with regard to the future, are gnawing at the spirit of every Israeli. This is not the time for in-fighting and mud-slinging. This is not the time for controversy and divisions. This is the time for responsible, committed, patriotic leadership. Let’s join hands and get Israel out of this crisis. Let’s put Israel first,” said the newly-elected Knesset Speaker.

But Gantz’ appeal for unity failed utterly, and his party splinted a short time later. The Blue and White now consists only of 18 MKs belonging to Yesh Atid and Telem. The Israel Resilience stands on its own with 15. Moreover, Gantz’ actions immediately sparked furious and blistering condemnation by his former allies.

Standing alongside Moshe Ya’alon at a joint press conference, Yair Lapid said “We ran together because Benny Gantz looked me in the eye and said he would never sit in this bad government. I believed him.” Lapid said that the over-one million people who voted for Blue and White “feel betrayed today, and justifiably so,” and that “their votes were stolen and given as a gift to Netanyahu.” Lapid went on to say that “what’s being formed today isn’t a unity government or an emergency government. It’s another Netanyahu government. Benny Gantz surrendered without a fight and crawled into Netanyahu’s government.”

Calling it “a sad evening,” Ya’alon said Gantz’s decision to join a Netanyahu government “symbolizes everything we oppose,” and that “therefore, Yair and I have no choice but to declare our partnership as a faction that will fight against this negative phenomenon from the opposition.”

Blue and White MK Meir Cohen, who had been the party’s choice to become Knesset Speaker before Gantz usurped his candidacy, responded by saying “”We did not oppose unity – certainly not at such an hour – but we first and foremost had to insist on democracy, which has been rudely booted today by those who hasten their way.” Cohen added that, “unfortunately, Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in dismantling Blue and White.”

Other members of the Center-Left bloc took turns at the Knesset podium to express bitter criticism of the emerging Gantz-Netanyahu alliance. “What have you done, Benny Gantz? How can you do this to the millions of voters who supported you?” charged Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, saying that her party “will have no part in this.” She then said, “You’ll end up a rug under the feet of an alleged crook, an inciter and racist,”in reference to Netanyahu. “We’re standing here in shock trying to internalize the depth of your deception… the disaster you’re inflicting on millions of voters [who backed] the left-democratic bloc… who sought an alternative,” Zandberg proclaimed.

MK Yousef Jabareen of the Joint List, which had recommended Gantz to form the next government, accused Gantz’ Israel Resilience party of transforming itself into a “Likud B” branch of Netanyahu’s ruling party.

MK Merav Michaeli of Labor expressed fury that Gantz and his party’s co-leader Gabi Ashkenazi, “put the entire country through this entire mess when they could have been ministers for Netanyahu all along.” She went on to say “Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, many Israelis took to the streets this week, people who voted for you, who supported you, who believed in you and gave you the power to replace Netanyahu. They fought to safeguard our democracy, and what do you do? You go and form a government for him.”

Ashkenazi, who is also a former IDF Chief of Staff, later responded with a Twitter message, reading: “The country is in the midst of a national crisis, one of the worst we’ve known. A difficult crisis demands difficult decisions,” adding, “We could not keep standing on the sidelines at a time like this. Israeli citizens now need a national emergency government.”

Voicing support of the development, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett also responded with a tweet. Bennett, who is an MK for the New Right (HaYamin HaHadash) faction in the right-wing bloc, wrote: “I congratulate Benny Gantz on his brave move to join a unity government headed by Netanyahu, this is the right thing for Israel in this time of emergency.”

The Defense Minister also denied reports that the Gantz-Netanyahu partnership-merge included the promise of ministerial positions. “Any reports of portfolio talks are completely fake news. The prime minister or his team did not talk to or my team about such a thing,” Bennett tweeted.

In fact, local media reported that once the next government has been formed, Gantz – a Lt.-Gen. (res.) and former IDF Chief of Staff, would be rewarded with Bennett’s position as Defense Minister; at which time he would relinquish the Knesset Speaker’s gavel back to Yuli Edelstein. Israel Resilience MK Gabi Ashkenazi was said to be granted the plum appointment as Foreign Minister, and other party loyalists are believed to be headed for other ministries, including that of Justice.

A rotation as Prime Minister between Netanyahu and Gantz is also believed to have been part of the deal, but it is not yet known when the trade for Israel’s leadership would go into effect.