Israeli party leaders lament stalling of movement towards government coalition

November 17, 2019 by Dov Lipman - JNS
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With a tenuous ceasefire taking hold across southern Israel, politics has again returned to centre stage.

Blue and White Party chairman Benny Gantz and Israel Beitenu Party chairman Avigdor Lieberman give a joint statement to the media after a meeting for negotiations towards building a new government, at the Kfar Maccabia Hotel in Ramat Gan, on Nov. 14, 2019. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

With Israel and its legislators analyzing the fallout from two days of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, and with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz having less than a week to form a government, the most significant development was a meeting between Gantz and Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman.

The two party leaders met on Thursday—after their meeting earlier in the week was delayed due to rocket fire—to discuss forming a possible unity government. It did not, however, yield any tangible results.

“We just finished a good meeting, where we analyzed the situation,” affirmed Gantz. “We do not want to see [a third round of] elections and will make every effort until the last minute.”

However, Gantz said he believes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is charging towards new elections and has no interest in forming a unity government.

Lieberman’s post-meeting statement indicated that no progress was made between the two. “What is missing for me is a clear announcement from all the leaders of Blue and White that they are accepting the president’s plan,” he said.

According to a previous proposal by President Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu would first serve as prime minister with Gantz as his vice premier, with Gantz taking over as prime minister should Netanyahu go to trial in connection to corruption cases against him.

“From Netanyahu, we heard clearly ‘no;’ he will not accept the full plan as I proposed. Here, I didn’t hear ‘no,’ but I also didn’t hear ‘yes’ in a positive way. It’s sorely missing,” stated Lieberman.

Sources indicate that Gantz is willing to accept the proposal. This seemed to be his direction when, following Israel’s targeted assassination on Tuesday of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander Baha Abu al-Ata, he released a strong statement of support for the operation.

Israel’s “political and military leadership made the correct decision for the security of the citizens of Israel,” said Gantz in a statement, adding that “every terrorist who endangers our security must know that he is a dead man.”

Interestingly, he also said that Netanyahu had notified him about the attack beforehand—a step not mandated by law, as Gantz is not officially the head of the opposition.

Nonetheless, as Lieberman indicated, disagreement still surrounds Blue and White regarding accepting the president’s plan for the formation of a government.

‘Everything is put on hold’

Ronen Hoffman, a member of the 19th Knesset and a professor of political science at the IDC in Herzliya, said military operations on this level cannot be indicators about anyone’s intentions to form a government. “If anything,” Hoffman told JNS, “it simply delays the political process, and everything is put on hold.”

In fact, the tension with Gaza may have created greater political distance between various parties. While a ceasefire was set in place on Thursday, PIJ nevertheless launched five rockets at Israel. Overall, some 450 rockets had been fired towards Israel since Tuesday.

Knesset member and No. 2 in Blue and White Yair Lapid criticized the ceasefire, saying it will only lead to the next stage of conflict.

“Giving Islamic Jihad their demands after they shot 450 rockets means that in the next round, Hamas cannot sit on the side,” he said. “It is not a good ceasefire because nothing has changed.”

While Lapid supported the assassination, some, including Lieberman have criticized Netanyahu for not decisively dealing with the Gaza situation, which would likely require a ground invasion into the coastal territory.

Despite such variances, Haim Jelin, a former Knesset member and head of a Gaza-area regional council, believes that the security situation could be used by both sides to justify the formation of a unity government.

There have been two major issues preventing the formation of a unity government: Blue and White’s refusal to sit in a government led by Netanyahu, and their refusal to accept all of the parties within Netanyahu’s 55-seat right-wing/religious bloc.

“Netanyahu can use the recent round of fighting with Gaza as the reason for letting go of his bloc,” Jelin told JNS, “and Gantz can use the Gaza situation as the reason for his sitting with Netanyahu, despite promising not to do so during the campaign. They can tell the country that Gaza and security required them to renege on their promises.”

Once the Gaza situation is dealt with, said Jelin, “in half a year or a year, both sides can decide whether to continue as is with just their two parties leading the country with their 75 Knesset seats, add more parties to the coalition or go to elections.”

Jelin said that the situation in Gaza really calls for major ground maneuvers—and to accomplish that would require a unity government.

“There needs to be a government led by Netanyahu and Gantz with each having half of the security cabinet, and that government must lead the country into a large-scale operation in Gaza,” Jelin told JNS.

The goal, he said, would be to “disarm Hamas, invest heavily in the Strip’s humanitarian needs, and sign a long-term ceasefire. But this necessary step can only be done with the backing of a unity government.”

All indications lead towards national unity being the only way forward. The coming days will determine whether or not Gantz and Netanyahu can use the current sense of unity generated by the recent Gaza battery and the glaring reality of Israel’s pressing security needs to start down that path.

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