By Erin Viner
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to form a coalition with less than one week to his deadline to do so, further dimming prospects for an Israeli unity government.
Blue and White Chairman, Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz, today urged the Likud leader to return his mandate to form the next government to President Reuven Rivlin ahead of October 24, the final day to either formally announce the next Israeli government or inform the President of his lack of success. A statement to TV7 from the Blue and White cited Gantz as saying, “I call upon Netanyahu: every day that goes by is a waste. Return the mandate to the President so that I can form a liberal unity government.”
Gantz’ statement follows a telephone conversation he held with his rival Likud leader yesterday, dialed at Netanyahu’s request after Gantz rejected face-to-face private talks. Netanyahu reportedly offered a power-sharing arrangement on condition Gantz abandon his alliance with his partner Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, as well as other members of his faction. Netanyahu’s envisioned-coalition to build the necessary 61-seat majority of the overall 120 member Knesset members would be a truncated Blue and White roster, combined with the Likud and its religious-right allies.
According to the Blue and White’s statement to TV7, Gantz said “Those who have read his proposal yesterday must realize that he does not propose a partnership, but rather continues along the lines of relegating Blue and White, the largest faction in the Knesset, to a junior partner in his government.”
Following the September 17 elections for the 22nd Knesset, the Likud’s 55-member bloc includes its own 32 mandates, in addition to Shas with 9, and 7 contributed by both United Torah Judaism and Yamina. This past Wednesday, Netanyahu insisted his partners sign a document pledging not to join any coalition led by Gantz under any circumstances. The text read: “We commit to only join a coalition led by Prime Minister Netanyahu that will include the signatories of this commitment: Shas, United Torah Judaism, [Beit Hayehudi] Jewish Home and Tkuma [National Union, both of which substantiate the Yamina-New Right alliance] – either as part of a unity government or a Likud-led narrow coalition.”
Moreover, the Prime Minister’s written oath of loyalty also compelled the factions to declare a commitment to work toward the disintegration of any prospective minority government headed by Gantz, and vote against any of its proposed legislation. According to Israeli Channel 12, Netanyahu also informed his party-faithful that in the event he ultimately loses the nation’s premiership he has no plans to resign his party’s chairmanship, but rather would remain to serve as head of an opposition – whose primary purpose would be to topple a Gantz minority government as soon as could be accomplished.
The current political impasse is the latest development in years of turmoil. Netanyahu has been the head of a caretaker government since December 2018, since he led the dissolution of the 20th Knesset – in what his critics argue was a maneuver aimed at delaying his indictment in three separate corruption cases involving charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. His failure to form a viable coalition in the wake of the April 2019 elections and refusal to return his mandate to the President then spurred the dissolution of the 21st Knesset, necessitating the unprecedented holding of another round of balloting for the second time in one year.
In its statement to TV7, the Blue and White responded to Netanyahu’s proposal by saying, “Practically, he seeks to use us to put out the fire caused by the government that was the eve of the 21st Knesset elections. At best, this is spin, and at worst, it represents leadership that is not able to internalize the will of the people in the past election for change. We find ourselves in a country held hostage with no functioning systems.”
Gantz also made veiled reference to Netanyahu’s legal battle to overcome possible indictment, which is expected to be determined by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit by the end of 2019, possibly as early as next month. “Unfortunately,” said Gantz, “the conduct of the outgoing Prime Minister, even during this recent period, indicates that his path is directed not toward unity, but toward immunity.” The political newcomer further asserted that “Even today he is unwilling to enter into direct negotiations, nor is he prepared to acknowledge that the majority of Israeli citizens elected a liberal unity government, without extremists.” After pointing out that “It is for this reason that Blue and White is the largest faction in the Knesset,” the Blue and White communique stressed that “Not unintentionally, the proposal brought by the outgoing Prime Minister fails to address the most important issue – that of maintaining the purity and rule of law. In recent weeks, Netanyahu has continued to oppose and to demonstrate disrespect toward law enforcement, the press and state agencies.”
TV7’s request for comment from Netanyahu’s Likud party has so far received no reply, but he stated publicly that “I call on Benny Gantz to show national responsibility and enter into immediate negotiations with me, to form alongside me the government that the State of Israel needs so much.”
President Rivlin could still grant Netanyahu a two-week extension to build a coalition, although convention wisdom is that he will pass on that option to pass the mandate to Benny Gantz. Local media is rife with speculation as to whom Blue and White, holding 33 mandates, would invite to sit a minority government, on the assumption that Likud would not agree to sit in a government under a Gantz premiership. High on the list of candidates is Yisrael Beiteinu’s 8 Members of Knesset, Labor’s 6 and the Democratic Union’s 5. The pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom paper has even furthered the possibility that Gantz intends to court include the Joint List Arab alliance, with 13 seats; which until now, has never joined an Israeli government.
Given the tumultuous political landscape, U.S. Senior Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner has announced that he will be holding talks with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Leader Benny Gantz during his upcoming visit to Israel the last week of October. The occasion would mark the first time U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law will meet Gantz.
According to a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity said the purpose of the visit is “to get a sense of coalition building and where the effort stands.” It does not appear at this time that Kushner, the primary architect of the U.S. regional peace initiative dubbed “The Deal of the Century,” is any closer to releasing the political aspect of the plan. The economic portion of the initiative was unveiled at a conference in Bahrain last June, which included a $60 billion aid package for the Palestinians.
Kushner is set to be accompanied by Brian Hook, the Special U.S. Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; as well as Deputy Assistant to the President and Advisor to the Senior White House Advisor Avi Berkowitz.
The U.S. delegation is also slated to make a stop-over in Saudi Arabia to attend an economic conference in Riyadh.