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Netanyahu and Gantz said forming unity government; Blue and White collapses

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz is set to partner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a unity government, serving initially as foreign minister but then taking over from Netanyahu as prime minister in September 2021, according to a reported deal taking shape amid immense political drama in Israel on Thursday afternoon.

Gantz’s decision to join forces with Netanyahu immediately led to the collapse of Blue and White, with the party’s No. 2 Yair Lapid rejecting the move and apparently heading into opposition with others from his Yesh Atid component of Blue and White. “Gantz chose Netanyahu over Lapid,” Channel 12 reported succinctly.

Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem faction both filed a formal request to break away from Blue and White late on Thursday afternoon, leaving only Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party to join forces with Netanyahu’s Likud. Lapid had reportedly told Gantz he preferred that Israel go to fourth elections rather than see Blue and White partner Netanyahu in power.

The coalition is reportedly likely to constitute 78-79 MKs — Likud, Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Labor, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism — according to Channel 12. That would leave Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Ya’alon’s Telem, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and the mainly Arab Joint List in opposition. However, various other fluctuations are deemed possible, with Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser from Telem, for instance, said to be weighing joining the coalition.

The unity deal was taking shape as the Knesset met to vote for a new speaker, following Likud speaker Yuli Edelstein’s resignation on Wednesday.

Gantz offered himself as the sole candidate for the Knesset speaker’s job, which he is set to hold only for a brief period while the terms of the unity coalition are finalized. He will then serve as foreign minister for the first 18 months of the emergency unity government, under the terms of the reported deal, before succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister.

It was not clear what post Netanyahu would fill at that stage. The prime minister has been indicted in three corruption cases, in a trial that was supposed to begin last week but has been postponed to May amid the coronavirus crisis.

After a bitter fight with Likud over the speaker’s job, Blue and White had been set to see its MK Meir Cohen voted in, which would give the party control of the parliamentary agenda.

But Gantz’s imminent partnership with Netanyahu blew that plan out of the water, tearing a rift in the center of Blue and White, and paving the way to a unity government headed by Netanyahu.

According to Hebrew media reports, Lapid told his Yesh Atid faction that Gantz “decided to break up Blue and White to crawl into Bibi’s government. It’s unfathomable.”

Yesh Atid’s Meir Cohen, who until hours earlier was set to become the next Knesset speaker, told Channel 12: “We did not oppose unity, certainly not in such an hour. But we thought that we should first and foremost insist on democracy… on integrity. All these were rudely quashed today by those who were in a rush [to join the government]. It could have been different.”

As the unity deal took shape, Cohen withdrew his candidacy for speaker, and members of Yesh Atid would not be voting for Gantz as speaker, a Yesh Atid official told The Times of Israel.

Instead, Gantz was set to receive the support of the entire right-wing bloc, ensuring his victory.

Yoav Kisch, a Likud MK, used the debate preceding the vote on a speaker to praise Gantz for his “courageous” move in partnering with Netanyahu in this period of the coronavirus crisis.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, by contrast, warned Gantz from the podium: “You’ll end up a rug under the feet of an alleged crook, an inciter and racist… We’re standing here in shock trying to comprehend the depth of the deception… the disaster you’re inflicting on millions of voters [who backed] the left-democratic bloc… who sought an alternative [to Netanyahu].

She wailed: “What have you done, Benny Gantz? How can you do this to the millions of voters who supported you?”

Sources close to Gantz told Channel 12 on Thursday afternoon that a unity agreement between his Israel Resilience faction and Likud was not a done deal, but he wanted to leave the option open — something that would not be possible if Yesh Atid’s Cohen was appointed speaker.

The emerging coalition will include the Labor party, which will split from the Meretz party, the channel said. Gantz will only be Knesset speaker for a brief time and once a unity government is formed and he is appointed foreign minister, the speakership will return to Likud.

Fellow former IDF chief of staff MK Gabi Ashkenazi — No. 4 in the collapsed Blue and White party — will reportedly be the defense minister, and MK Chili Tropper will be the justice minister.

Netanyahu and Gantz had discussed the possibility of setting up an emergency government to tackle the coronavirus Wednesday, taking a rare actual step toward a much-touted unity coalition.

In recent days, Likud and Blue and White had clashed over the latter’s bid to call a Knesset vote to replace Yuli Edelstein as parliament speaker. Likud had warned that if Edelstein were replaced, that would be the end of unity talks.

On Wednesday morning Edelstein resigned as speaker rather than call the vote on his own successor, as ordered by the High Court two days earlier.

On Thursday, the Knesset Arrangements Committee approved Labor MK Amir Peretz’s request to convene the plenum at 4 p.m. for a vote on the next Knesset speaker, in accordance with a separate High Court ruling late Wednesday.

After Wednesday night’s phone conversation between them, Netanyahu and Gantz said in a joint statement that they had agreed that negotiators from their two parties would resume coalition talks on Thursday.

“Against the backdrop of the escalating coronavirus [crisis] and the president’s appeal [for unity], the two instructed their teams to return to the negotiating table tomorrow in order to examine the possible formation of a national emergency government,” both parties said.

Even though Netanyahu and Gantz have talked up the option of unity for the last two weeks, negotiations between their parties had failed to move forward.

Gantz was tasked on March 16 with forming a government after 61 lawmakers backed him as prime minister, and given 28 days to do so.

Despite having the backing of 61 MKs for the premiership, Gantz was stuck with no straightforward path to a government, with members of his party objecting to cooperating with the Arab-led Joint List even in a minority government. His Blue and White ruled out that option Tuesday, according to several Hebrew media reports.

Blue and White didn’t have any alternative route to a government, since all the other parties in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc refused to break their loyalty to the premier by even holding negotiations on the matter.

The centrist party had publicly vowed not to join a government headed by Netanyahu, though it had said it could serve alongside another Likud chairman should Netanyahu step aside. But Likud leaders have rallied behind Netanyahu despite the allegations against him.

Blue and White had also expressed opposition to joining an “emergency government” with Likud just to battle the pandemic, believing it would be sidelined in such a coalition and preferring instead to let Netanyahu handle the crisis alone, for better or worse.

Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic was a crucial time in which leadership and national responsibility had to be exercised, claiming the disagreements between the rivals regarding the specifics of a unity government were small and could be overcome.

“The citizens of Israel need a unity government that would act to save their lives and livelihoods,” he said, addressing Gantz. “This isn’t time for fourth elections. Let’s meet now and form a government today. I am waiting for you.”

He repeated the plea on Wednesday, tweeting that “we need to set this aside. We are one nation and one people and the order of the day is unity. I am calling for an immediate national unity government to deal with the crisis.”

After seeming to soften his position in recent days, Gantz said Tuesday he was demanding to go first as prime minister in a rotating premiership deal.

“I have an expectation and a demand for a unity government headed by me,” he told activists from his party who had demonstrated outside his house, calling on him to form a unity coalition rather than a minority government propped up by the Joint List.