If Gantz agrees to sit with Netanyahu, it could split Blue and White

Coalition talks between Blue and White and Likud began after Gantz was granted the mandate to form a government by President Reuven Rivlin on March 16th.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz addresses a near-empty Knesset while Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein looks on, March 23, 2020 (photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz addresses a near-empty Knesset while Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein looks on, March 23, 2020
The corona crisis is pushing Israel towards an emergency unity government but Prime Minister-designate Benny Gantz knows that if he agrees to such a coalition it will likely spell the end of his Blue and White party.
Coalition talks between Blue and White and Likud began after Gantz was granted the mandate to form a government by President Reuven Rivlin on March 16th.
Gantz received the recommendations of 61 Knesset members to be appointed prime minister, as opposed to 58 for Benjamin Netanyahu. One MK, Orly Levy-Abekasis, from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list, did not recommend anybody.
In television interviews on March 21, Netanyahu claimed that Likud and Blue and White had completed negotiations on the formation of a 3-year national unity government under which he would serve first as prime minister for 18 months followed by Gantz for 18 months. 
“I will leave office on the agreed date,” Netanyahu said in a message to Gantz. “There will be no shticks and tricks. Millions of Israelis are waiting for us.” He also blamed Yair Lapid, number 2 on the Blue and White list, for holding up the signing of the coalition agreement.
Netanyahu added that the division of ministerial power would be divided equally by Blue and White and the Likud’s bloc, but said that the entire arrangement hinged on Blue and White’s consent not to move ahead with electing a new Knesset speaker and with legislation that would prevent Netanyahu from continuing to serve as prime minister.
Gantz denied that a deal had been reached, saying: “Those who want unity do not work with ultimatums and harmful leaks and certainly do not try to hurt our democracy and citizens by paralyzing the Knesset.”
A source close to Gantz said: “There are only two options: unity with Netanyahu or a minority government. Both are bad, but either one of them is preferable to a fourth election.”
Blue and White promised during the election campaign that they would not sit in a coalition headed by Netanyahu who has been indicted on serious corruption charges. But the election in early March was indecisive and some kind of rotating premiership agreement will be part of any deal between Blue and White and Likud.
Neither Gantz nor Netanyahu has a realistic chance of forming a minority government, and many consider a coalition deal the least worst option, despite the lack of trust between the two main parties: the magnitude of the coronavirus crisis has provided the catalyst.
The Likud released a statement calling on Benny Gantz to realize that the coronavirus requires a national unity government.
“We expect Blue and White to display national responsibility and immediately join an emergency government of the people of Israel,” the Likud said. “This is not the time for politics.”
Gantz explained that the national emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic made it necessary to consider breaking election promises, saying Israel needs a coalition to address two challenges facing the country: “to cope with the health, economic and social aspects of the coronavirus crisis and at the same time to preserve Israeli democracy.”
He argued that it would be irresponsible not to consider alternatives due to changing circumstances. “At this moment, all options have to remain on the table.”
However, two members of Blue and White’s so-called cockpit leadership, Yair Lapid and Moshe Yaalon, have said that they will not join a government headed by Netanyahu. Gabi Ashkenazi, the fourth member of the cockpit, is opposed to the option of a minority government which is reliant on the outside support of the predominantly Arab Joint List. He would likely join Gantz, splitting Blue and White in two.
Yair Lapid accused the Likud of negotiating in bad faith with the aim of encouraging a split in Blue and White, which, he said, won’t succeed.
The deep suspicion felt by Blue and White leaders towards Netanyahu is proving to be a major stumbling bloc as they fear he will find an excuse to dismantle the coalition at the end his term to avoid handing over the premiership to Gantz. Blue and White negotiators were demanding legal guarantees to prevent such a scenario. Such guarantees would include the swearing in of both Netanyahu for the first term and Gantz for the 2nd stint if and when the Knesset votes to approve a unity government and a clause stipulating that Gantz would automatically replace Netanyahu as prime minister if Netanyahu broke up the government.
Increasing the deep suspicion was the controversial decision taken by Likud interim Justice Minister Amir Ohana to suspend the activity of Israel’s courts , meaning that Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, due to start on March 17, was delayed for more than two months. A statement from Ohana’s office said the decision , which was made in the middle of the night only two days before the start of the trial, was made based on health ministry recommendations and that “there is a real fear of serious harm to public health” if the court system continued as normal.
The toxic atmosphere worsened when Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein suspended parliamentary activity, postponing a vote to elect his replacement and form new Knesset committees.
Blue and White MK Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu and Edelstein of shutting down Israeli democracy.
“Currently, the only institution that is operating in the country is an unelected transitional government with a prime minister who lost the election. Since he doesn’t have a majority in the Knesset – he has shut down the Knesset. Since he was about to stand trial – he shut down the courts,” Lapid said.
Edelstein argued that the coronavirus outbreak made any gathering of the 120 MKs dangerous to their health and stressed the shutdown was a temporary measure. “The Knesset is not closed, and our democracy isn’t in danger,” he said.
The government was also criticized after it approved emergency measures for the Israel Security Agency Shin Bet to track the mobile-phone data of people with suspected coronavirus.
The new powers are being used to enforce quarantine and hundreds of people also received messages warning that they may have come into contact with infected people.
The temporary laws were passed during an overnight sitting of the cabinet, bypassing Knesset approval.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel called the move “a dangerous precedent and a slippery slope.”
Netanyahu responded to his critics by warning that “a delay of even one hour in employing these digital tools could have led to the death of very many Israelis, just as is happening in Italy and other places in the world where thousands are dying.”
Luckily, the coronavirus in Israel has resulted in relatively few fatalities in comparison to other Western states. But this could change, and if it does, the pressure will only increase for an emergency unity government.