5 days before deadline, Gantz’s chances of forming coalition seen as fading away

With no breakthrough in negotiations with Likud, internal disagreements in Blue and White, and expectations of coming indictment against PM, political deadlock persists

Retired General Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White political alliance, is pictured after paying his respects in front of the coffin of the recently deceased former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Retired General Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White political alliance, is pictured after paying his respects in front of the coffin of the recently deceased former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Benny Gantz’s prospects of cobbling together a governing coalition seemed to be fading at the weekend, with just five days left in his mandate and little headway made in negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party to form a unity government.

Gantz has until November 20 to assemble a coalition. He was tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a government after Netanyahu failed to do so following general elections in September, which left both Blue and White and Likud short of a governing majority with allied parties.

The Blue and White party leader also hasn’t given up on attempts at a minority government backed by the Arab parties, Channel 12 reported Thursday night, although the likelihood of that — slim from the start — diminished even further this week, with several days of Gaza fighting highlighting the insurmountable differences between the parties on security issues.

While Blue and White threw its full support behind the targeted killing of senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror chief Baha Abu al-Ata and the fighting that ensued, the Arab-majority Joint List party members held angry protests, calling the operation a “war crime.”

Gantz cannot at the moment even rally the co-leaders of his own party on a strategy for coalition talks with Likud, the Channel 12 report said.

(From R-L) Blue and White party members Yair Lapid, Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi attend a Blue and White faction meeting in Tel Aviv, on September 19, 2019. (Avshalom Shoshoni/Flash90)

Rivlin has suggested a power-sharing deal whereby Netanyahu would serve as prime minister for half the term followed by Gantz. The proposal would see Netanyahu take a leave of absence from the position if and when he is indicted in three pending corruption cases.

Channel 12 reported that party co-leader Yair Lapid strictly opposes accepting Rivlin’s proposal as is, since it would mean serving under a prime minister facing criminal charges — something the party promised its voters it would not do. The party’s No. 3 Moshe Yaalon and No. 4 Gabi Ashkenazi are also currently unsatisfied with the assurances they are getting that Likud would honor such an agreement, the Channel 12 report said, without citing sources.

All four Blue and White co-leaders met Friday with Avi Licht, the former deputy attorney general, after hiring him to explain in detail the legal ramifications of Netanyahu being charged and taking a leave of absence, Channel 12 reported. The party’s strategic adviser, Shalom Shlomo, was also present.

Gantz himself has been non-committal towards Rivlin’s outline due to the lack of progress in talks with Likud about the general principles for a unity government, as well as Likud’s refusal to separate from its right-wing bloc of allied religious and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Likud, meanwhile, claims that what is hindering negotiations are the disagreements within Blue and White.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, October 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP)

Blue and White is also seen as hesitant to come to agreements with Likud shortly before Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to announce an indictment against Netanyahu — a declaration which could come within 10 days, according to a Channel 13 report Thursday.

Blue and White was cited in the Channel 12 report as saying all options were on the table, including a minority government, and that Gantz would “leave no stone unturned” and continue in his efforts until next Wednesday, when his mandate from Rivlin will end. While Gantz can request a two-week extension, he isn’t likely to do so and if he does, Rivlin is unlikely to accept it.

Channel 13 reported Thursday that Rivlin’s proposal stalled when Netanyahu wouldn’t commit to not seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Gantz reportedly demanded that Netanyahu step down if Mandelblit announces a decision to indict the premier. Netanyahu replied that he would not step down until the trial begins, a potential delay of many months. Rivlin suggested a compromise: that Netanyahu step down when the indictment is formally filed some months after Mandelblit’s announcement.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at a memorial ceremony to commemorate the 24th anniversary of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, at the president’s residence in Jerusalem on November 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Ordinary cabinet ministers are required to resign when indicted, but no clear precedent sets the rule for a prime minister, who under the strict letter of the law is only required to resign if he is convicted with all appeals exhausted.

According to Channel 13, Gantz did not like Rivlin’s proposal because of what he saw as a potential loophole: that Netanyahu may try to escape indictment by asking the Knesset to confer parliamentary immunity on him.

Such a move would likely delay the filing of any indictment, and could potentially trigger a political battle in the Knesset House Committee and in the plenum that could destabilize the coalition and drive new elections — while leaving Netanyahu in power and unindicted the entire time.

Sources close to Netanyahu have insisted that giving up his right to seek immunity would be tantamount to surrendering his right to a legal defense.

Gantz, realizing that the immunity bid could derail a coalition operating under Rivlin’s proposal midway through its term, has therefore declined to pursue the president’s framework, the report said.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a Justice Ministry conference in Tel Aviv, November 4, 2019. (Flash90)

Mandelblit, who served as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary and was appointed by him to the attorney general post in 2016, is widely believed to be leaning toward indicting the prime minister for fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, and bribery in one of them.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing in any of the cases, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police and the state prosecution designed to oust him from power.

Gantz’s party has previously called for Netanyahu to step down as head of Likud due to the possible indictments pending against him, saying it will not serve under a prime minister facing grave charges of criminal wrongdoing. Blue and White has said a unity government with Likud could be formed “within an hour” if Netanyahu steps down.

Blue and White and Likud have regularly blamed each other for the lack of progress in negotiations and sought to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to third elections within a year. The two previous rounds of voting in April and September failed to give either party a clear path to a majority coalition.

If Gantz indeed fails to form a coalition, a 21-day period will start in which a minimum of 61 of the 120 Knesset members can decide to back any MK to serve as prime minister. Failing that, a new election must be held.

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