Immunity, other sticking points remain with 8 days to go

As unity talks falter, details of proposed pact show annexation, 30 ministers

TV report lays out far-reaching deal said to be on table, which would include Netanyahu as PM for 3-6 months; Yisrael Beytenu said contemplating forcing unity on the sides

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches rival Benny Gantz as they and other party leaders including Avigdor Liberman and Aryeh Deri prepare to pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches rival Benny Gantz as they and other party leaders including Avigdor Liberman and Aryeh Deri prepare to pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

With eight days left until the country is forced into a dreaded third election in under a year, talks between Likud and Blue and White appeared to stall Tuesday, even as reports emerged purporting to offer details of the possible outline of a long-shot unity deal.

Meanwhile, the rightist-secularist Yisrael Beytenu party was reportedly considering a ploy that would effectively force a coalition agreement on the two sides based on the rough outlines of the purported deal.

A Channel 13 news report Tuesday claimed that the parties were nearing a unity deal that would bring an end to a political stalemate that has all but frozen Israel’s political system since April, and gave some details of the alleged terms. But the deal was stalled over several key issues, and thus elections still look likely, the report said.

The report aired soon after Blue and White’s challenger Benny Gantz and Likud’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held an unsuccessful 45-minute meeting, and as the parties each blamed the other for stymieing the talks.

Channel 13 said both parties had agreed in principle to a premiership rotation deal between Gantz and Netanyahu in which Netanyahu would go first but serve for only a few months before taking a leave of absence to deal with the corruption charges against him. The sides agreed, too, that this rotation would somehow be anchored in new legislation before a government is formed — that is, that sometime in the coming eight days, the Knesset would manage to amend Israel’s basic laws on elections and government powers in order to ensure that the agreement would have to be respected by all sides.

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Whether such a legislative feat is possible is unclear, but its very inclusion in the talks hinted at the level of distrust between the sides.

The parties also reportedly agreed that Blue and White would effectively control defense and foreign policy, with the party’s No. 2 Yair Lapid serving as foreign minister and No. 4 Gabi Ashkenazi (like Gantz, a former chief of the army) as defense minister. Blue and White would also get the influential Interior Ministry, which has authority over many religion-and-state and municipal governance issues that are a point of contention between Haredi backers of Netanyahu and the secularist Yesh Atid faction within Blue and White.

The deal is widely seen as a last-chance effort to broker a unity government after two elections and months of unsuccessful talks between Netanyahu and Gantz. Both have pushed for a unity government, but negotiations have been stuck over Netanyahu’s looming criminal indictments and insistence on negotiating on behalf of a large bloc of right-wing and religious parties.

Under the reported terms of the deal, Likud would man the domestic and legislative front, with a party lawmaker at the helm of the treasury and Likud’s Yuli Edelstein remaining speaker of the Knesset, the report said.

The report is one of many competing claims about the chances for a coalition deal before the December 11 deadline for a new vote.

If true, it suggests the deal is geared toward helping Gantz sell the idea of joining forces with a scandal-ridden Netanyahu to the rest of his faction, especially the wary Lapid and Ashkenazi, who would gain the top posts in government after Netanyahu and Gantz.

Gantz’s party made ousting Netanyahu a centerpiece of its campaigns in the April and September elections and has said repeatedly it will not sit in a government with Netanyahu so long as he is facing the criminal charges.

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

The new government would also include over 30 ministers, with ministries divided equally between the two parties, the report claimed. The religious “status quo” would be preserved in the coalition deal, but the deal would pointedly not mention new initiatives in several towns to operate public transportation on Shabbat.

Perhaps most controversially, the sides reportedly agreed that Israel would annex the Jordan Valley under the new government, a key Netanyahu campaign promise, but one that is opposed by much of Israel’s security establishment. Gantz has said Israel must retain the Jordan Valley as a security border, but has not backed unilateral annexation.

The report went on to say that serious disagreements remained, including over whether Netanyahu’s initial term would last three months or six, Gantz’s subsequent term 18 months or 24, and whether Netanyahu would remain a member of the security cabinet after vacating the Prime Minister’s Office.

It is not clear why the last part would be up for discussion. Under rules established by a High Court of Justice ruling in the early 1990s, a minister facing indictment who isn’t the prime minister must resign from the cabinet, and so could not serve on the security cabinet, which is a subcommittee of the broader cabinet. A change to this rule would likely require legislation as well.

Netanyahu was also said to be refusing to give Gantz a clear answer on whether he intends to seek Knesset immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases for which he has been charged.

According to Channel 13, Gantz was willing to accept most of the demands, but was said to be worried his acquiescence to the deal would split the Blue and White alliance he has led in the last two elections.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

Despite the wide areas of agreement, therefore, Gantz’s fears mean that new elections are still very likely, the network concluded.

Gantz is thought to be under pressure from his three fellow Blue and White leaders — Lapid, Ashkenazi and MK Moshe Ya’alon — to refuse any agreement that leaves Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Some in the party say Likud’s recent conciliatory tone is a trap meant to lure Gantz into publicly agreeing to a temporary Netanyahu government as a ploy to undermine the party’s anti-Netanyahu campaign in an unavoidable third election.

Perhaps the strangest report in Tuesday’s barrage of political leaks and rumor-mongering concerned the growing frustration over the impasse on the part of the man who started it all, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.

It was Liberman’s rightist-secularist Russian-speaking party that stood its ground in coalition talks in May on religion-and-state issues, forcing Netanyahu to call new elections or face losing the premiership to Gantz. It was a watershed moment, the first time in Israeli history that an election failed to form a government.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting in the Knesset on December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Liberman, who still refuses to join a rightist-Haredi government led by Netanyahu, now seems less than thrilled at the prospect of sending the country yet again to elections — and may have found a way out of the trap. He cited frustration on the part of his party’s lawmakers Tuesday as he hinted at a new strategy to force the sides to agree.

“It’s hard to decide what’s worse — early elections or a narrow government, but I understand the Yisrael Beytenu MKs who are protesting our conduct,” he told the Knesset Channel on Tuesday, after MKs Hamad Amar and Oded Forer urged him to join a Netanyahu-led right-wing government.

At a Monday faction meeting in the Knesset, Liberman said: “The easiest path would have been for us to join a narrow government. We didn’t do it because the State of Israel needs a broad government. It needs a government made up of the two major parties or it will not be able to make the decisions it must make.” He went on to insist that “unlike everyone else,” Yisrael Beytenu actually wanted a unity government.

Liberman alone sets policy in his party, so the almost unheard-of disquiet in the ranks was viewed Tuesday as a blunt signal to Gantz and Netanyahu.

As Channel 12 explained the scenario on Tuesday, citing Yisrael Beytenu officials, Liberman could join a rightist-Haredi coalition led by Netanyahu, giving the premier a 63-seat majority and averting new elections. He could then let Netanyahu serve out the first six months of the aforementioned deal, making clear that was his intention the whole while. His precondition would be Netanyahu’s agreement to resign as premier after those six months, and the agreement of Likud to then enter a Gantz-led coalition.

Then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit the IDF’s West Bank Division, near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, on January 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu would then be hard-pressed to refuse to form a government handed to him on a silver platter under the very terms he now claims to be offering Blue and White. Come May, Gantz would be similarly hard-pressed to turn down the prime minister’s chair then being offered to him by none other than his Likud rivals.

Occasionally dubbed the “kingmaker” of the election, Liberman has so far played the spoiler. The strategy Yisrael Beytenu may be preparing to avert a new election would, Liberman is said to believe, transform him into the all-powerful linchpin of any government formed under the current parliamentary math.

The two television reports came as Netanyahu and Gantz met at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening, allegedly to try to bridge the gaps that remain between the parties, but, it soon emerged, mostly to make the case that they were not the cause of the next election if it comes.

Netanyahu insisted to Likud activists ahead of the meeting that a unity deal was “still possible,” and said he would spare no effort to assemble such a government.

Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich speaks at a Central Elections Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Indeed, Netanyahu seemed to go out of his way Tuesday to convey sincerity in the offer — and to accuse Blue and White of refusing to end the stalemate. Shortly after the meeting with Gantz, Netanyahu’s spokesman Jonatan Urich issued a statement to the press that promised to back legislation that would ensure the rotation agreement — six months for Netanyahu, the 24 months for Gantz — would be respected by both parties.

But Blue and White had rejected the idea outright, Urich accused, along with other unspecified “sweeping concessions” made by Netanyahu in the Tuesday evening meeting.

“Blue and White continue to refuse to establish a unity government because of Yair Lapid’s vetoing of a unity government,” he said.

He added that Blue and White’s refusal was foolish, since Netanyahu would in any case continue to serve as premier for the next few months, since failure to establish a government would launch a 90-day election campaign until March, followed by several more weeks of coalition talks. Netanyahu would continue to serve as interim prime minister for the duration of the period, as he has done since the 20th Knesset voted to go to elections last January.

“So Lapid is dragging us to elections in order to ensure that Netanyahu remains in power,” Urich quipped.

Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Yair Lapid, left, share a laugh during a faction meeting at the Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Netanyahu himself was more blunt, tweeting on Tuesday night: “Gantz proved today, once again: Instead of putting Israel above all else, he is putting Yair Lapid above all else.”

Blue and White, meanwhile, issued its own statement after the meeting, saying, “The Likud chairman [Netanyahu] brought nothing new that befits his current legal situation or shows recognition that he lost the election, or, in fact, anything new at all. In the meeting he even refused to commit to the new government’s policy guidelines, or to commit not to seek personal immunity [from prosecution as a member of Knesset]. In short — Netanyahu chose new elections.”

The statement went on: “Despite all that, we will continue till the last minute to try every possible avenue for establishing a government of cooperation and unity, words that are foreign to Netanyahu.”

Likud denied Blue and White’s claim, saying in a statement to the press that “The issue of the policy guidelines [of the new government] did not come up during the meeting, or the [rightist-Haredi] bloc, nor did Netanyahu address the issue of immunity in any way. These are Gantz’s excuses to prevent a unity government, simply because Yair Lapid is unwilling.”

Likud officials, meanwhile, warned that failure to achieve a unity government in the coming week would leave Israel vulnerable to existential threats.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Netanyahu, said a new government was necessary because “war with Iran is possible in the next six months.”

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