Benny Gantz to Get First Chance at Forming Government After Receiving Thin Majority

Rivlin summons Netanyahu, Gantz to discuss unity government ■ Lieberman, Joint List recommend Kahol Lavan leader ■ Netanyahu offers Gantz emergency unity government over coronavirus crisis on Twitter ■ Kahol Lavan calls the move 'empty gesture'

Gantz at a Kahol Lavan press conference in Ramat Gan
Tomer Applebaum

President Reuven Rivlin will give Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz the mandate to form a government on Monday morning, after he won the majority of recommendations from Knesset lawmakers, the president announced Sunday night.

The announcement comes after Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party and the Joint List of Arab-majority parties recommended Gantz have the first try to form a coalition earlier Sunday.

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In addition to Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint List, the Labor-Meretz slate recommended Gantz, with its ally in the election, Gesher leader Orly Levi-Abekasis, refusing to join it in doing so. This gave Gantz 61 recommendations, a narrow majority.

Rivlin, however, summoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Gantz for an "urgent conversation" on Sunday afternoon in which the three discussed the "possibility of forming a government immediately," a statement released by the President's Residence said.

People walk on a bridge under Kahol Lavan election poster, Ramat Gan, February 18, 2020.
Oded Balilty / AP

The rivals released a joint statement Sunday night after the meeting concluded thanking the president for the discussion. The two agreed that their negotiation teams will meet soon.

Rivlin released a statement emphasizing that the two must "continue and deepen their direct channels of communication between them and their negotiation teams" and welcomed the presence of both sides. 

Surprising recommendations

Gantz receiving 61 MKs to back him comes despite previous statements by Joint List lawmakers that they saw no difference between Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and by Lieberman that members of the Joint List were "enemies."

Lieberman has repeatedly called for a unity government between Gantz's Kahol Lavan and Netanyahu's Likud and accused the prime minister of selfishly refusing to solve the political crisis by stepping aside. On Sunday, he called for the creation of an emergency government and said Netanyahu's only goal was an early election, which would be Israel's fourth in a year.

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh told Rivlin after recommending Gantz: "If Gantz wants to form a unity government, we will be the main opponents. If he wants to form a center-left government – we recommend Gantz. If 61 MKs recommend Gantz, we ask that members of the Joint List recommend him."  


President Reuven Rivlin (L) meets with the Joint List's Ayman Odeh (Hadash), Mtanes Shehadeh (Balad), Ahmad Tibi (Ta'al) during consultations to name the next Israeli prime minister, March 15, 2020.
Mark Neiman / GPO

Rejecting unity government

Earlier Sunday, Kahol Lavan rejected Netanyahu's latest offer for an emergency unity government under his leadership, which the premier claims will be able to better combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

According to the proposal, which Netanyahu tweeted, the emergency government would be disbanded after six months, or, alternatively, would remain in place with Netanyahu serving first as prime minister, with Gantz taking over after two years.

On Sunday morning, Knesset faction heads sat with President Reuven Rivlin to recommend their nominee for prime minister.

Kahol Lavan said the move was an "empty gesture," calling on the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties and Yisrael Beiteinu to recommend Gantz for prime minister, and to act together on Monday, when the new Knesset is inducted, to oust the Likud party's Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein.

Gantz derided Netanyahu's proposal, urging the Likud leader "not to turn your back on Israeli citizens."

Kahol Lavan leaders Yair Lapid (L) and Benny Gantz (R) at an event in Ramat Gan, March 15, 2020.
Tomer Appelbaum

"Someone who wants unity does not postpone their trial at 1 A.M.," Gantz said on Twitter, referring to Interim Justice Minister and Netanyahu ally Amir Ohana's decision to freeze the court system, which allowed to delay Netanyahu's trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, slated to start on Tuesday, to May 24.

"When you get serious, we'll talk," Gantz concluded.

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman later commented that behind Netanyahu's proposal there was "nothing but accusations and attempts to delegitimize opposition parties. The strategic goal has not changed - the override clause and the French law," referring to two pieces of legislation that Netanyahu's party members promoted in the past and would allow the premier to evade trial.

"The conclusion is that Netanyahu wants to go in to new elections in six to eight months on the wings of a corona victory," the former defense minister added. "All in all, the sea is the same sea, the Arabs are the same Arabs and Bibi is the same Bibi," Lieberman said.

Conditional recommendation

Meanwhile, the Joint List unanimously recommended Gantz for the premiership on the condition that he does not form a unity government with Netanyahu.

Odeh expressed hope that "The entire public understand that a shared destiny is not only to confront the disease, but that peace, democracy, equality and justice are also the true interest of us all."

He added that both Netanyahu and Gantz don't have a "Jewish majority" to form a government, and that is thanks to Arab voters "coming in droves," in addition to 20,000 Jewish voters who all chose the Joint List.

Netanyahu's team reportedly did not contact Kahol Lavan directly and the centrist party only learned of the proposal via Twitter, sparking Gantz to comment if Netanyahu sought unity he would not "send an emergency government proposal to the media, but send a negotiating team."

Netanyahu's suggestion is to divide ministerial positions equally among the two camps. Additionally, "the prime minister would not be able to dismiss Kahol Lavan ministers, while Kahol Lavan will not be able to file for no-confidence in the prime minister."

Netanyahu also called on the Labor party and Yisrael Beiteinu to join in, urging their leaders to "take responsibility, and join any government we build."

A senior official from Kahol Lavan told Haaretz over the weekend that a "scenario whereby we join a unity government where Netanyahu starts [as prime minister], is on the table. We will see what happens with the negotiations."

Two faction leaders within Kahol Lavan, Yair Lapid and Moshe  Ya'alon are fierely opposed to a Netanyahu-led government.

On Sunday, Ya'alon blasted Netanyahu on Twitter, saying the embattled prime minister was taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis "for personal political reasons, as a defendant before a trial."

But voices within Kahol Lavan are now saying that the centrist alliance is ready to join an emergency government, where there will be equality between the right-wing bloc and the center-left bloc, or which would lean in favor of Kahol Lavan.