Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Friday that he was not in talks with the Likud Party aimed at forming an alternative government, in an attempt to wave off speculation that he and his Blue and White Party are prepared to jump ship as the coalition struggles to remain afloat.
He said in a leaked recording of a Zoom call he held with supporters that figures on behalf of Likud who reached out on Thursday to test the waters of a possible alternative coalition received a “bump to the nose.”
Opposition and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu “has contributed a great deal to the State of Israel in the past, but in recent years he has damaged stateliness [in the country] while endangering rule of law and democracy. We will not join him,” Gantz declared.
He claimed that reports of a deal brewing between him and Likud could well come from either side of the political map — be it Netanyahu’s circle, where there’s interest in strengthening the Likud leader’s positioning by demonstrating that he’s capable of working with Gantz, or from figures in the coalition, who are interested in blaming the defense minister if the government falls.
But Gantz has made such assurances before. During three consecutive election campaigns in 2019 and 2020, the Blue and White leader vowed not to join a government with Netanyahu. But as the political deadlock dragged on, Gantz buckled in early 2020 and signed a unity government agreement with Netanyahu that was supposed to see the Blue and White chairman replace the Likud leader as premier after 18 months. But Netanyahu identified a loophole in the agreement, which required the coalition to dissolve if it failed to pass a budget, exploiting it to his advantage until their government collapsed at the end of 2020.
Blue and White hobbled into the 2021 election with the majority of its support wiped out, but still managed to win eight seats and join the current government. However, Gantz is seen as an embittered participant with his former political partner Yair Lapid slated to replace Naftali Bennett as prime minister next year, while the Blue and White chairman remains defense minister and a more junior partner (though few analysts expect the coalition to last another several months, let alone another year). Lapid was Gantz’s No. 2 in Blue and White but broke off after the chairman decided to join Netanyahu in 2020.
Speculation that Gantz was cozying up to Likud reemerged earlier this week when the defense minister drew up a compromise on legislation to provide academic scholarships to former combat veterans that coaxed Likud into dropping its opposition.
The coalition’s original bill proposed covering two-thirds of the former soldiers’ tuition, while Likud demanded that the government foot 100 percent of the bill. Moments before a vote was held with the coalition lacking enough support, Gantz announced that he was prepared to alter the bill to provide 75% tuition coverage and Likud subsequently agreed to withdraw its opposition, allowing the law to pass.
Lawmakers from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties have been particularly praiseworthy of Gantz in recent weeks as well, calling him the “responsible” member of the government.
Gantz’s party represents the more centrist part of the coalition, and while recent crises that have brought the bloc to its knees have come from the right- and left-wing flanks, the most recent lawmaker threatening to vote to hobble the government is Blue and White MK Michael Biton.
Biton announced on Wednesday that he would no longer vote for coalition bills in protest of proposed reforms in public transportation and agriculture.
Biton charged that Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Agriculture Minister Oded Forer were “hurting the weak,” citing a proposal from the former to raise ticket prices. He also called for all the Agriculture Ministry’s reforms to be halted until an agreement is reached with farmers.
A senior Blue and White source indicated Biton’s demands were backed by the party. “We call on Michaeli to bring back proper conduct to the coalition and Knesset,” the unnamed source was quoted as saying by Hebrew media.
But others in the coalition blame Gantz. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett worried recently that Gantz’s “bitterness” is undermining the government, according to an unsourced Haaretz report.
The daily separately said that Gantz’s aides believe Michaeli’s office leaked false claims that the Blue and White chairman is in talks with Likud.
Gantz told Blue and White activists on Friday that he is aware of progress in talks between Biton and Forer and expressed hope that Michaeli would also come to the table and negotiate.