Blue and White said to demand Justice, Foreign ministries for unity government

TV says talks aimed at establishing emergency coalition ongoing for days; Likud said okay with Ashkenazi as defense minister; no agreement on how to rotate prime ministership

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)

Likud and the Blue and White party have been holding talks for days aimed at establishing an emergency national unity government, with Blue and White demanding several top ministries, the Kan news broadcaster reported Wednesday night.

Critically, however, there is no agreement on who would serve first as prime minister — Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz — and for how long.

According to the outlet, Likud has accepted the Blue and White party’s demand that MK and former IDF chief-of-staff Gabi Ashkenazi 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 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 bee postponed to May amid the coronavirus crisis.

The sides are also still negotiating over whether and for how long Netanyahu would serve as prime minister before Blue and White chairman Gantz would take his place, the report said.

Netanyahu, who’s 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 government with Netanyahu because of the criminal charges against the Likud leader, but has seemed to have softened his stance amid the coronavirus crisis.

Blue and White party member MK Gabi Ashkenazi speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

While the parties were reported to have made progress toward an agreement at the end of last week as the coronavirus 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.

While the six-MK Labor-Meretz left-leaning party has called on him to form a minority government with them that would be reliant on outside support from the right-wing, secular Yisrael Beytenu party and the majority-Arab Joint List, prospects for such a scenario appear particularly dim with a handful of members from Gantz’s own party opposing such a coalition.

However, a similar number of Blue and White MKs also oppose serving in any government under Netanyahu — something the centrist alliance vowed throughout the campaign that it would not do.

Nonetheless, Gantz has 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 Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein ordered the parliament shut at least until Monday after the Blue and White party refused his proposal of having equal representation in the Knesset’s so-called Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the formation and operation of the parliament.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein seen at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Among other things, the Arrangements Committee oversees the creation of the Knesset’s other committees, including those that would provide parliamentary oversight of the government’s efforts to contain the pandemic. The committee could also allow the Blue and White party to call for a vote on the Knesset speakership, which would likely result in Edelstein’s departure from the position that he has held since 2013.

His blocking efforts have led critics to accuse Edelstein of subverting the will of the majority of MKs.

The crux of the disagreement centers around the size of the committee, with Blue and White wanting the committee to comprise 17 members, which would give the 61-seat bloc led by Blue and White a 9-8 majority on the committee. Likud meanwhile, claiming that Health Ministry guidelines allow no more than 10 people to gather at the same time, wants it limited to that number, which would result in a state of parity on the committee.

Amid fierce accusations that the speaker is stifling parliamentary oversight of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the Knesset’s legal adviser Eyal Yinon indicated Wednesday evening that Edelstein would not be able to continue his closure of the plenary into next week.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (L) and Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at the Knesset on May 7, 2013. (Flash)

Yinon said that if the Arrangements Committee is not formed by the beginning of next week, the matter must be brought before the plenary for a vote, which Edelstein’s Likud party would likely lose.

Minutes after Yinon’s opinion was released, Edelstein officially banned meetings of more than 10 people in the 120-person parliament in a move he said was taken in response to the coronavirus dangers.

In an extraordinary intervention underlining concerns over Israeli democracy functioning properly during the coronavirus outbreak, Rivlin phoned Edelstein earlier Wednesday and told him to reopen parliament, warning of the risk of harm to Israeli democracy.

In response to Edelstein’s closure, Gantz said his faction would immediately file an appeal to the High Court of Justice against the decision.

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