Blue and White denies unity deal close, says talks with Likud halted

Party dismisses reports that leader Gantz willing to dissolve it to join unity government in which he would serve as PM after Netanyahu

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)
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)

The Blue and White party on Thursday said it was calling off coalition talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, denying reports its leader Benny Gantz was willing to break up the party and join a unity government while going second in a rotation deal for the premiership.

“Negotiations with the Likud team were stopped tonight,” Blue and White said in a statement.

“No meeting took place today and contrary to the reports, there are no agreements,” it added. “What we have seen throughout the day is cynical spin during a great and difficult crisis for Israeli citizens.”

The party also vowed: “Next week, Likud will get a functioning Knesset for the benefit of Israel’s citizens.”

It was referring to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s decision to close the plenum until next week amid disagreements between Blue and White and Likud over the formation of the Knesset’s so-called Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the formation and operation of the parliament.

The Blue and White statement came as Hebrew media reports said Gantz was leaning toward joining a government led by Netanyahu, against the opinion of senior Blue and White members.

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz (second left) with colleagues (from right) Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi at party headquarters on elections night in Tel Aviv, early September 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

According to Channel 12 news, Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi were in favor of a unity government, while the party’s No. 2 Yair Lapid and No. 3 Moshe Ya’alon were refusing, meaning Blue and White could end up splitting.

However, a separate report from the Haaretz daily said Gantz was conditioning such a government on changing the law to enforce the rotation agreement. Such deals are currently voluntary, with no legal way to force a premier to resign at the end of the agreed term.

The sides also haven’t agreed on how long Netanyahu would serve as prime minister if the deal goes ahead, the report said. Netanyahu is demanding two years, but Gantz is said to demand less.

On Wednesday, the Kan public broadcaster reported that Blue and White was demanding several top ministries during talks with Likud on establishing an emergency national unity government.

According to the outlet, Likud has accepted the Blue and White party’s demand that Ashkenazi, a former IDF chief of staff, become defense minister under such an agreement.

Blue and White is also demanding the Foreign, Justice, Public Security and Culture ministries, the first three of which are regarded as among the most important positions in the government.

Justice and Public Security are seen as key portfolios amid allegations Netanyahu has sought to subvert the rule of law as he tries to avoid his corruption trial, which was due to start this week but has been postponed to May amid the coronavirus crisis.

Netanyahu, whose Likud won 36 seats to Blue and White’s 33 in this month’s election, has demanded to serve two full years before being replaced by Blue and White leader Gantz, the report said.

After the September election, when Blue and White received 33 seats to Likud’s 32, Netanyahu insisted on serving first, but only for a period of 6 months.

Gantz has frequently insisted he will not sit in a government with Netanyahu because of the criminal charges against the Likud leader, but has seemed to have softened his stance amid the coronavirus crisis.

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. At left is Benny Gantz. Center, with back to camera, is Benjamin Netanyahu (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

While the parties were reported to have made progress toward an agreement at the end of last week as the virus outbreak began to spike in Israel, goodwill has since fallen apart as Blue and White lawmakers have accused the prime minister of trying to neuter Israel’s democracy. Last week, Gantz received recommendations from 61 of the 120 lawmakers as their choice for prime minister, leading President Reuven Rivlin to tap him with forming a government on Monday.

Gantz has recently expressed openness to a unity government with Likud, highlighting that the current coronavirus crisis requires the sides to make compromises. On Tuesday though, the Blue and White leader lamented that Netanyahu was not interested in seriously negotiating such a partnership.

Goodwill further dipped on Wednesday after Edelstein ordered the parliament shut at least until Monday after the Blue and White party refused his proposal of having equal representation in the Arrangements Committee.

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