To strengthen the chance of defeating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the April 9, 2019 election, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz, leader of the Israel Resilience Party, agreed to join forces on February 21. Citing their “national responsibility,” the two leaders said they would run on a joint ticket called “Blue and White” (Hebrew: כחול לבן, Kahol Lavan) — the colors of the Israeli flag.
According to the arrangement, if they are able to form a governing coalition, Gantz would serve as prime minister for the first 2½ years, and Lapid the remainder of their term in office.
If it forms the next government, the party platform calls for:
- A regional conference with Arab countries to “deepen the processes of separation from the Palestinians, while uncompromisingly protecting the security interests of the country and the Israeli army’s freedom of action everywhere.”
- No further “disengagement.”
- “Every historic diplomatic decision” to be decided by referendum or require a supermajority of the Knesset for approval.
- Strengthening “the settlement blocs” and normalizing life “anywhere Israelis live.”
- The Jordan Valley to be the eastern security border of Israel.
- A united Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital.
- Preserving Israel’s Jewish identity while allowing individuals and communities the freedom to shape their own lifestyles.
- Preserving the Jewish Sabbath as the national day of rest while permitting activities that provide “a response to the needs of Israeli citizens as a whole.”
- Permitting local governments that wish to operate limited public transportation on Shabbat to do so.
- Rescinding laws barring businesses from opening on Shabbat.
- Drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.
- Approving legislation to allow civil unions and surrogacy for LGBT families.
- Amending the “nation-state law” to include equality as a fundamental constitutional principle.
In response to a question at a public event regarding peace with the Palestinians, Lapid reiterated several of these points. “We need to separate from the Palestinians, and we need to do it on four terms that to me are essential,” he explained. First, he said, “Israeli security should stay in Israeli hands,” which means permitting the army to enter Palestinian territory to prevent terrorism. Second, the Jordan Valley must remain in Israeli hands. Third, he rejected the Palestinian demand that refugees be allowed to settle in Israel. Fourth, Jerusalem must remain undivided, “because countries do not divide their own capitals.”
Speaking at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference Gantz addressed the issue of providing an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall saying it “is long enough to accommodate everyone.” He added, “In Bergen-Belsen (where his mother was held) no-one asked who is Reform and who is Conservative; who is Orthodox and who is secular” and “before going into battle I never checked to see who had a kippa under their helmet.”
Gantz said Israel, under his leadership, will strive for peace with any “honest and willing Arab leader,” but stressed that Jerusalem will always be “Israel's united and eternal capital,” and that Israel would never withdraw from the Golan Heights.
In the April 2019 vote, the party won 35 seats, tying with Likud; however, Netanyahu was seen as having a better chance to form a governing coalition and was given the opportunity to try. He failed but orchestrated the dissolution of the Knesset to force a second election in September.
In late August, Blue and White and Yisrael Beiteinu signed a surplus vote-sharing agreement.
Kahol Lavan and Likud again appeared in a dead heat in September, but with fewer seats than they won in April. Kahol Lavan won 33 seats to 31 for Likud. Netanyahu called for negotiations with Gantz to discuss a coalition, but Gantz rebuffed him.
Three of the four Arab parties endorsed Gantz as their first choice to form a government. This still did not give him enough seats to form a government, and Gantz had indicated before the vote he would not enter a coalition with the Arab parties. Moreover, the decision of Balad not to support Gantz, meant that Netanyahu and his right-wing allies had the advantage of 55 to 54 seats.
President, Reuven Rivlin made clear his desire to see a unity government and Gantz and Netanyahu began talks to see if they could agree to a power sharing arrangement that might exclude the other parties. The situation was complicated by Netanyahu’s legal troubles. He was scheduled to have a pre-indictment hearing in early October to challenge the evidence in the three cases where the Attorney General recommended he be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu had hoped to form a government with loyalists who would vote to grant him immunity, but that did not happen.
Netanyahu failed to build a coalition and, for the first time in eleven years, someone else – Gantz – was given the opportunity to form a government. The reason he was not given first crack was the unlikelihood he could put together the needed 61 votes.
Gantz rejected Netanyahu’s proposal to form a unity government with the two leaders rotating two-years terms as prime minister. Gantz also decided not to try to form a minority government or to consider including any Arab parties in his coalition. Ultimately, Gantz failed to form a coalition and a third election was scheduled for March 2, 2020.
The outcome of the election, as in the two previous ones, did not result in any party winning a majority of the votes or having an obvious coalition that would allow the formation of a government. The Center-Left bloc (Blue and White and Labor - Gesher - Meretz) won only 40 seats; nevertheless, President Reuven Rivlin gave Gantz the first shot at forming a government.
Gantz suddenly and unexpectedly reversed his pledge not to serve under a prime minister charged with crimes on March 26, 2020, announcing he would “explore the formation of a national emergency government” under Netanyahu. He told the Knesset, “These are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions.” Referring to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Gantz said, “This is the time for responsible, committed, patriotic leadership. Let’s join hands and get Israel out of this crisis.”
The announcement led to the breakup of the Blue and White Party. Gantz’s two partners, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, remained opposed to serving in a Netanyahu-led government, considering it a betrayal of their supporters. Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction and Ya’alon’s Telem faction subsequently decided to split from Blue and White.
Netanyahu and Gantz signed a deal on April 20, 2020, to form a “national emergency government” and avert the need for another election. According to the agreement, Netanyahu will remain prime minister for 18 months and Gantz will be prime minister-designate and deputy prime minister. In October 2021, if the government lasts that long, Gantz would become prime minister. If Netanyahu dissolves the Knesset, Gantz will serve as prime minister for six months before new elections. Netanyahu also was given a reprieve by the agreement to allow a deputy prime minister, which would be Netanyahu when Gantz become prime minister, to serve under indictment. He also will get an official residence, which may allow him to stay in his present home. Gantz will also be allowed to veto the Likud’s choice of a Knesset speaker to replace him. Yariv Levin is reportedly Netanyahu’s choice for the position.
The two men agreed to divvy up the cabinet portfolios, with Likud choosing those for Internal Security, Health, Education, Interior, Transportation, Housing, Energy and Finance ministries, and the next ambassador to the United Nations. Yisrael Katz is expected to become Finance Minister and Miri Regev will take public security portfolio. Blue and White will oversee the Defense, Justice, Foreign, Media, Sport and Culture, Economy and Welfare ministries. Gantz will become defense minister and Gabi Ashkenazi the Foreign Minister.
In the following months, as the coronavirus spread through Israel, tensions between Gantz and Netanyahu mounted, culminating in a row over passing the national budget. When the budget was not adopted by the December deadline, the Knesset automatically dissolved and a new election was called for March 23, 2021.
Gantz’s decision to serve with Netanyahu combined with what was widely seen as a poor performance in government resulted in Kahol Lavan plummeting in the polls and a number of defections to other parties. A major blow was the decision by Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn to leave Kahol Lavan to join the new Hayisralim Party formed by Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai. Yossi Verter observed, “the new party could also push the dying remnants of Kahol Lavan below the electoral threshold.” That would be a shocking and devastating turnaround for a party that won 33 seats, the second most, in the prior election.
Sources: Chaim Levinson, “Gantz's Party Releases Platform: Deepen Separation From Palestinians, Strengthen Settlement Blocs,” Haaretz, (March 6, 2019);
“Could The Ultra-Orthodox Parties Join A Gantz Government?” Jerusalem Post, (March 5, 2019);
“Blue and White,” Wikipedia;
Sophia Jessen, “Yair Lapid outlines four demands for peace with Palestinians,” Haaretz, (March 7, 2019);
Amir Tibon and Noa Landau, “Gantz at AIPAC: Western Wall Is Long Enough for Everyone, No Kahanists Will Run Israel,” Haaretz, (March 25, 2019);
Jacob Magid, “Gantz vows to annex Jordan Valley ‘in coordination with international community,’” Times of Israel, (January 21, 2020);
Yossi Verter, “The Slow Fraying of Gantz’s Party Has Turned Into a Panicked Flight,” Haaretz, (December 30, 2020).