A draft unity government agreement reportedly provides for the establishment of a new, official residence for Israel’s “acting prime minister” — the role Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is set to play for the first 18 months, and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for the second 18 months, of their potential unity coalition.
A Channel 12 news report Wednesday evening initially said the provision for a state-provided official residence for the acting prime minister was a Likud demand, but later reported that both sides were claiming that the other initiated it.
If the deal is agreed, Netanyahu is set to remain prime minister, and continue to live in the official Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, until fall 2021. Meantime, Gantz would have some kind of boosted role as “acting prime minister.” Then Gantz would take over as prime minister, and Netanyahu would take the “acting” post.
While the Likud party responded to the report by calling it “fake news,” Blue and White said that Gantz planned on remaining in his private Rosh Ha’ayin residence until he takes over as prime minister in a year and a half.
The report of a shock demand for a presumably costly new residence — made at the height of an economic crisis that has left more than a million Israelis unemployed amid the battle against the coronavirus — came at the end of another round of talks on the “emergency coalition” that Gantz said last Thursday he would join. Gantz explained at the time that a mixture of the pandemic crisis, the imperative to avoid a fourth round of elections and the threats to Israeli democracy left him no alternative but to abandon his promise to Blue and White voters through three elections not to sit in government with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister faces criminal charges.
As the talks dragged on through Wednesday, the Blue and White party reportedly threatened to resume a legislative push for a law making it impossible for an indicted MK — such as Netanyahu — to serve as prime minister. But that threat apparently receded, and the talks were said to have made a little headway by Wednesday evening, and were set to continue through the night.
The sides were said to still be deadlocked over Gantz’s opposition to US-backed Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, under the Trump peace deal. But they were reportedly making some progress on other issues, including who will be the next Knesset speaker — Likud’s Yariv Levin, according to Channel 12 news. The sides were also reported to have agreed that Likud will hold the Justice Ministry and Blue and White the Ministry of Public Security, or vice-versa, with the other having a deputy minister, to ensure a consensus on policy in those ministries.
In a statement Wednesday evening, Gantz reiterated his assertion that he had no choice but to join forces with Netanyahu, and acknowledged the “disappointment” among some of his erstwhile supporters. But most Blue and White voters, he asserted, favored the idea of an emergency coalition.
But he sounded deeply pessimistic about how the move would play out, acknowledging that it might mark the end of his relatively brief political career. “The true narrative, which is more challenging that a ‘House of Cards’ script, obligated me to act in this way,” he said. “And if this is my political end, but I properly serve the State of Israel — then I will have done something.”
Before Gantz entered the unity talks, his then Blue and White partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon were pressing to advance legislation barring an indicted lawmaker from being tapped to form a government. The bill would also limit a prime minister to two terms in office.
The legislation is very clearly aimed at disqualifying Netanyahu, whose trial in three cases was due to start in March but has been postponed to May amid the pandemic. Lapid and Ya’alon had hoped that as the legislation was being advanced, the Likud leader would break and agree to a rotational government with Gantz, but with the Blue and White leader serving as prime minister first.
But breaking with his partners, Gantz said he would join a government with Netanyahu and serve as prime minister after the Likud leader, prompting the dissolution of Blue and White and kicking off coalition talks.
“Efforts are being made, but not I’m not sure whether a government will be established,” a source involved in the negotiations told Channel 12 on Wednesday afternoon.
The stumbling blocks preventing an agreement continue to center around the issue of West Bank annexation as well as the identity of the next justice minister and other senior officials.
Likud negotiators are demanding that the government be allowed to annex large parts of the West Bank within the first six months of the government’s establishment. Blue and White, on the other hand, has insisted that decisions during the first half-year only be related to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, with an agreement regarding basic principles of the government only formulated afterward. Likud has flatly rejected this proposal, pointing out that in six months, the Trump administration may be replaced and Jerusalem will by then have lost the support of Washington for the move.
“It doesn’t make sense since within six months the window of opportunity for annexation will close,” a Likud official told Channel 12. “We will not establish a left-wing government.”
Blue and White is seeking to have an equal number of ministers in the government as the right-wing bloc, in order to block right-wing moves. “There is a majority of 61 on the right, so we are trying to secure our impact,” a source in the centrist party said, hinting that MKs who might have recommended Gantz form the government may not vote with him on annexation or other issues.
While Netanyahu made declaration of Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements, as well as over the Jordan Valley, a staple of his campaign ahead of the March 2 election, Gantz provided mixed messages on the matter. He expressed support for annexing the Jordan Valley, but conditioned the measure on it being coordinated with the international community — an idea that appears far-fetched as the US has been the only country that has not rejected annexation offhand.
While tentatively backing the Trump peace plan earlier this year, the Blue and White chairman has long insisted he opposes unilateral steps to end the conflict and, according to Channel 12, has returned to that position in coalition negotiations.
Even before the election, annexation appeared well on its way to being achieved, as a joint US-Israeli mapping team arrived in Israel in February to tour the West Bank and mark the exact borders Israel could lay claim to under the peace plan.
However, the team’s progress has since stalled, amid the coronavirus outbreak, and it is unclear when it will be able to return to Israel to finish its work, with the November US presidential election also looming.
Meanwhile, the national-religious Yamina party has threatened to bolt the right-wing bloc and sit in the opposition as the compromises Netanyahu has had to make to Gantz to reach a unity deal increase. MK Ayelet Shaked said in a Facebook Live Q&A with supporters that a government that does not annex the West Bank within a month, without any preconditions, “does not have a right to exist.”
Until the reported progress Wednesday evening, the sides had made little headway over an agreement on the identity of the next justice minister. Likud reportedly insisted that Blue and White MK Chili Tropper be appointed to the post, rather than MK Avi Nissenkorn from the same party. Netanyahu associates were concerned that Nissenkorn would take a more aggressive approach in opposing moves to curb the power of the courts — efforts that right-wing lawmakers have been championing in recent years.
The identity of the next Knesset speaker has also been a point of contention. Former speaker Edelstein is seeking to return to the post he vacated last week, when he quit rather than agree to obey a High Court of Justice ruling requiring him to hold a vote on his replacement. Gantz has expressed opposition to Edelstein’s behavior, and made a point of lambasting his conduct in his speech upon being elected interim speaker last Thursday.
But with the other name being weighed for the position being the more hardline Likud MK Levin, the Maariv daily reported Wednesday that Blue and White had agreed to rescind its veto against Edelstein’s re-nomination.
There have also been conflicting reports as to whether Blue and White has given up on replacing Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. The United Torah Judaism chairman has been heavily criticized over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly for the ultra-Orthodox lawmaker’s inability to explain the importance of following the guidelines to the Haredi public, while also urging to keep ritual baths open throughout the country.
Channel 13 reported Monday that Blue and White is willing to relinquish the Foreign Ministry post that was likely to go to MK Gabi Ashkenazi, in exchange for one of its lawmakers being tapped to head the Health Ministry. However, Netanyahu raised the possibility with Litzman in recent days and the United Torah Judaism chairman rejected the idea out of hand.
Amid criticism that his government will give too much power to the center and center-left factions, Netanyahu spoke to his right-wing and religious political allies on Sunday night to reassure them about the coalition talks, calling reports on the distribution of cabinet portfolios, “total fake news.”
On the left, the Labor party’s Merav Michaeli on Monday called for an “emergency meeting” of the faction’s leadership to block a reported proposal by chairman Amir Peretz for the party to join the government in exchange for him and his deputy, Itzik Shmuli, being guaranteed cabinet posts, arguing that such a move would require an internal vote.
The reports of Peretz’s proposed entrance into a unity government came as a shock to his followers, in light of his repeated insistence throughout two election campaigns that he would not serve under Netanyahu.
As the talks have dragged on, speculation has grown that Netanyahu might seek to string out the negotiations until Passover, when Gantz’s mandate from the president to form a coalition ends, reducing his leverage over Netanyahu.