Blue and White-Likud talks to address specifics of PM’s leave of absence: report

Gantz’s party said planning to tell Netanyahu he can either be first in rotation or include religious bloc, but not both; meeting to take part Sunday

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), and Benny Gantz (L), leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for late president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), and Benny Gantz (L), leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for late president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

The Blue and White party has done extensive research on the possible ramifications of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taking a leave of absence if he is indicted in any of the three pending corruption cases against him, and the issue is likely to come up during Sunday’s meeting between the Blue and White’s and Likud’s negotiation teams, a report said Thursday.

Immediately after receiving the mandate to form a government from President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday evening, Gantz began speaking with party leaders and inviting them to meet to negotiate their potential entry into the Blue and White-led coalition he hopes to establish, while also setting up meetings between his party’s negotiating team and other parties’ counterparts.

The idea of Netanyahu taking a leave of absence — part of Rivlin’s proposed compromise for a unity government in which both would take turns as prime minister — and rival Benny Gantz replacing him during that time could take on several interpretations, Channel 13 reported.

If Netanyahu were to stop acting as premier the moment Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announces charges against him, that could happen before a government is even formed. But if he were to do so only when the indictment is read out in court, that could take many months, since Netanyahu would ask the Knesset for immunity and deliberations could be lengthy.

The TV network quoted a Blue and White source as saying the party would not necessarily accept the president’s outline, but was coming to negotiations to talk about everything and would wait to hear what Likud had to say.

Netanyahu has three options once he is charged, assuming he won’t quit politics.

President Reuven Rivlin presents Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with the mandate to form a new Israeli government, after PM Netanyahu’s failure to form one, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on October 23, 2019. (GALI TIBBON / AFP)

He could remain prime minister and fight the legal battle simultaneously, which he is currently legally permitted to do, but that is likely to be tested — for the first time — at the High Court of Justice.

Netanyahu could also be given immunity from prosecution by the Knesset, although he isn’t likely to succeed in securing a majority and even if he does, that, too, will surely be tested at the High Court.

The third option is the most legally complex — taking a leave of absence to fight his legal battle. The law would have to be changed to permit that, and Netanyahu would most likely also demand that the law be changed so that the temporary leave of absence won’t become permanent after 100 days.

Channel 13 also reported Thursday that the Blue and White negotiation team would next Tuesday meet representatives of the Joint List alliance of Arab and Arab-majority parties.

Leader of the Joint list Ayman Odeh (R) and party member Ahmad Tibi arrive for a meeting with party members at the Knesset on September 22, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A spokesman for Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said: “We still have not confirmed a date but it is reasonable to assume the meeting will take place on Tuesday. We will determine the time and date for the meeting on Sunday.”

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported that one of the “compromise deals” Blue and White could propose to Likud would force Netanyahu to choose between including his religious allies in the coalition, and being prime minister first in the rotation deal.

Likud has stressed that Netanyahu is negotiating on behalf of the 55-member bloc of right-wing and religious parties loyal to him, without whom he will not enter a coalition. Blue and White has previously rejected this negotiation position outright.

The unsourced report said that Blue and White was intending to “expose the true face” of Netanyahu and force him to reveal “whether he really wants unity or elections at any cost.”

It said Blue and White was “disappointed” by Netanyahu’s conduct in the 24 hours since Gantz was tasked with forming the government.

“They expected there to be some party leaders in the right-wing bloc who agree to meet them independently,” but they all declared loyalty to Netanyahu and said he represents them in the negotiations, the report said.

In a speech on Wednesday evening after being tasked with forming the coalition, Gantz promised to build a government of national reconciliation and said he would invite Netanyahu and Likud to be part of it.

Gantz, like Netanyahu who failed before him, has 28 days to try and form a government, though the prime minister-designate is seen as being no more likely to succeed in that task.

With Gantz’s appointment, Netanyahu, for the first time in his 10 years of consecutive rule as prime minister, saw his exclusive control over Israel’s political system wrested from his hands.

A toast is held marking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 70th birthday at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, October 24, 2019. The event was attended by Sara Netanyahu, MKs, cabinet members, PMO personnel and other senior officials. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu was initially tasked by Rivlin with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a bloc of 55 MKs of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers after September’s inconclusive elections (Likud: 32; Shas: 9; United Torah Judaism: 7 and Yamina: 7).

Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties (Blue and White: 33; Labor-Gesher: 6; Democratic Camp: 5; and 10 out of 13 MKs from the mainly Arab Joint List).

If Gantz fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, which ends November 20, a majority of lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset could try to endorse any Knesset member — including Netanyahu and Gantz — as prime minister. A leader has never before been elected during that time period in Israel. If that fails, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a third election in under a year.

Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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