President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90) Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Netanyahu Gantz Rivlin

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz was given the first chance to try to form a government.

By Dov Lipman, JNS

Despite the coronavirus pandemic firmly on most Israelis’ minds, the country’s political process continued to unfold on Sunday as party leaders met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for consultations in the wake of the March 2 election.

Israeli politics have been anything but routine over the past year, with political deadlock and three elections, and Sunday’s meetings with Rivlin proved no exception. In a surprise twist, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, despite finishing second in the elections behind Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, is to receive the mandate from Rivlin to try to form a government.

After consultations with all the parties elected to the Knesset on March 2, Rivlin heard 61 recommendations for Gantz as prime minister—33 from his own Blue and White Party, six from Labor/Meretz, seven from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and a unprecedented 15 from the Joint Arab List.

On the other hand, Netanyahu received the support of 58 MKs—36 from his Likud Party, nine from Shas, seven from United Torah Judaism and six from Yamina.

Joint List chairman Aymen Odeh made the surprising announcement that all four Arab parties comprising the Joint List recommended Gantz, saying that “we are against a unity government, we are against an emergency government, we are against Netanyahu.”

He explained that his party had met with Blue and White to discuss civilian matters that impact the Israeli Arab community, and that they had agreed on enough issues to put things in the right direction, enabling them to recommend Gantz for prime minister.

Unity Government Still on the Table

While Gantz has received the backing of enough MKs to form a government, talk of a unity government persists, especially in light of the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. Gantz and Netanyahu both met with Rivlin late Sunday at his residence to discuss a unity deal.

“The president emphasized that [Gantz and Netanyahu] should continue to intensify direct contacts between them and between the Likud and Blue and White negotiating teams, and welcomed both sides’ willingness to do so,” said a statement released by Rivlin’s office.

“At the end of the meeting, the two sides agreed that the two parties’ negotiating teams will continue the discussions,” the statement added.

The meeting Sunday night came on the heels of a unity government offer earlier in the day by Netanyahu.

During his meeting with Rivlin, Likud representative Tourism Minister Yariv Levin told the president that Netanyahu had extended an offer to Gantz to join him in creating an emergency unity government. According to Levin, Netanyahu offered two options:

1) A six-month emergency government led by Netanyahu in which Likud and Blue and White would divide the ministries equally. At the end of the six months, assuming the corona crisis has ended, the political situation would revert to the current one and the normal process of the president tasking a Knesset member to form a government would resume.

2) A full, four-year unity government with equal division of the ministries and a rotation deal for the premiership, under which Netanyahu would serve as prime minister for two years, followed by Gantz.

But Gantz tweeted that the offer was “not serious.” Blue and White MK and former Likud Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon explained to JNS that “while we will review all offers with seriousness, we are suspicious of this new offer coming just this morning [Sunday] before parties come to recommend a prime minister to the president. We are dealing with a prime minister who faces charges for breach of trust, and we have real suspicions about the decisions and offers that he is making.”

Ya’alon went on to say that if there is to be a unity government, “Benny Gantz is the one who needs to lead it with as many parties as possible participating. That way we all will know that decisions are being made with what Israel needs in mind and nothing else.”

Blue and White MK Karine Elharar told JNS that the party has a specific reason to refrain from accepting Netanyahu’s unity government offer.

“The fact that the prime minister had his justice minister shut down the country’s courts at 1:30 in the morning—which pushed off Netanyahu’s trial for two months—has to raise suspicions and we don’t know what his intentions are,” said Elharar.

‘State of Emergency’

Early on Sunday, Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana declared a 24-hour “state of emergency” for the country’s court due to the COVID-19 crisis, restricting the courts to urgent hearings only. The Jerusalem District Court later announced that Netanyahu’s trial would be postponed until May 24.

Likud Minister Levin told JNS that “this is a sincere offer and I hope that Blue and White will recognize the significance of the moment and join us in a stable government that not only leads Israel during this crisis but for the next four years. The election results themselves demand this solution to the political stalemate.”

Likud MK Keti Sheetrit told JNS that Blue and White’s acceptance of the Joint List’s recommendation and refusal to join a unity government was “shocking” to the party’s left-wing Zionist voters.

“Hatred for Netanyahu is what binds Blue and White together, and hatred to a Jewish state is what binds the Joint List together,” she said, adding that “now the [former] IDF chiefs of staff from Blue and White and the supporters of terror from the Joint List” have joined forces.

Gantz receiving the mandate to form a government does not mean he will be successful in doing so.

Two members of Blue and White, as well as Gesher Party leader Orly Levy-Abukasis, who was the only MK not to recommend anyone to Rivlin, have stated that they will vote against any government relying on the support of the Joint List. There are strong indications other Blue and White MKs may follow suit.

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman has said that while he recommended Gantz to Rivlin, he will not cooperate with the Joint List to form a government and prefers the path of an emergency unity government. That would seem to make a Gantz-led government an impossibility.

But receiving the mandate does give Gantz and his party control over the Knesset and its agenda. The 23rd Knesset will be sworn in tomorrow (Monday) and Blue and White has announced that they will use their control over the Knesset and their majority to take actions including a review of the interim government’s handling of the corona crisis and replacing Likud Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein.

Edelstein said on Sunday that he would stop Blue and White from convening parliament on Monday to vote in a new Knesset speaker, The Times of Israel reported. Control of the Knesset speaker position would potentially allow Blue and White to push legislation barring Netanyahu from forming a government.