Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu report ‘real progress’ in coalition talks

Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu report ‘real progress’ in coalition talks

With Gantz facing a Wednesday deadline to form government, parties say they’ve reached agreements on religion and state issues; Labor-Gesher also reports ‘significant’ headway

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (right) and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman after meeting in Ramat Gan on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (right) and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman after meeting in Ramat Gan on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Negotiators from Benny Gantz’s Blue and White and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu parties on Sunday reported “real progress” in coalition talks, specifically on religion and state issues, three days before the deadline to form a government.

In a joint statement, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu said “real progress has been made in drafting the basic policy principles, in particular on matters of religion and state.”

The parties said their representatives would meet again on Monday and Tuesday.

Blue and White and Labor-Gesher negotiators met later on Sunday and similarly reported “significant progress.”

“During the meeting, significant progress was made toward agreeing on the basic principles of the future government, including those related to the settlements and agriculture. The parties are expected to meet again soon,” Blue and White and Labor-Gesher said in a joint statement.

President Reuven Rivlin presents Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with the mandate to form a new Israeli government, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form one, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on October 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition in the aftermath of the inconclusive September elections, the Blue and White party leader has until Wednesday to do so, after which Knesset members may choose a candidate to be given the mandate or decide to head back to elections — the third in less than a year.

In a twist of fate, this week or early next week will also likely see Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announce his decision on whether to charge the premier in three corruption cases, according to reports, further complicating Netanyahu’s position since Gantz has vowed not to sit in a government under a prime minister facing criminal charges.

Gantz has no realistic path to forming a majority coalition without Likud, though he could presumably form a minority government with the external backing of the predominantly Arab Joint List.

Gantz met Thursday with Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu party holds the balance of power in the Knesset. Liberman, a right-wing secularist, campaigned on forcing a unity government between Likud and Blue and White that does not include ultra-Orthodox or “messianist” religious-right parties if neither could form a government without him after the September 17 vote.

After the meeting, Liberman hinted at disagreements at the top of Blue and White, saying that all leaders from the party must announce they accept a unity plan, pushed by President Reuven Rivlin, that would see Gantz take over as prime minister only in case Netanyahu is indicted.

Liberman has urged a Netanyahu-Gantz unity government, but has said he would support whichever party accepted his terms if the other did not.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The political sphere was buzzing Sunday with coalition jockeying, meetings and mutual accusations as Netanyahu stepped up his warnings against an “insane” potential minority government backed by Arab-majority parties.

Netanyahu’s campaign is seemingly aimed at leaving Gantz with no choice but to agree to a unity government with the Likud leader remaining as prime minister or admit his failure to form a coalition and risk new elections.

After the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Netanyahu met with his 55 MK-strong bloc of allied religious and ultra-Orthodox parties. The premier has insisted on holding negotiations with Blue and White only as part of that broader bloc and not just as Likud leader — one of the reasons unity talks have not yielded even minimal progress.

At 6 p.m. Sunday evening, he is expected to speak at an “emergency” rally against a minority government at Expo Tel Aviv.

While most of the Blue and White party has declined to give interviews, No. 2 Yair Lapid tweeted Sunday that “if instead of all the ‘horror shows’ and the racist incitement, Bibi would agree to come without his bloc and to go second in the rotation, there would have been an excellent unity government. Neither the country nor its security interest him.”

The Kan public broadcaster on Sunday quoted unnamed sources who had been talking with Netanyahu associates as saying the premier’s lawyers have strongly recommended that he let another election be called, giving him more time to prepare his defense in the court cases likely to be announced.

In a video message Saturday night warning against allying with Arab parties, Netanyahu seemed to be kicking into renewed election campaign mode, directly addressing Blue and White co-leaders Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi, who like Gantz are former military chiefs of staff: “Are you out of your mind? There’s time to stop this insanity. Speak to [Gantz], come to your senses, and come for that same unity government the nation expects us to go for together.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, on November 12, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Over the weekend Netanyahu held a conference call with Likud ministers and MKs in which he warned of “an emergency situation,” claiming Blue and White had decided to try and establish a minority government shored up by the outside support of Arab Knesset members. Netanyahu called on his colleagues to help organize mass public opposition to such a move. It was not clear what Netanyahu’s comments were based on, and there was no statement to that effect by the leaders of Blue and White, who insisted they continued to seek a unity coalition. Netanyahu has made similar assertions on numerous occasions in the past.

A third election, Netanyahu told officials, would be “a disaster.” But “a minority government dependent on the Joint List is even worse.” He said such a government, “dependent on supporters of Islamic Jihad and Hamas,” would be “historically dangerous” to the Jewish state.

But Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the National Union — one of the factions in Netanyahu’s bloc — tweeted Sunday that he refuses to “join the hysteria regarding a minority government.” The chances of that scenario materializing were “tiny,” he noted, and even if it should happen, it would likely hurt Gantz and benefit the right in the long run. His tweet received support from MK Yoav Kisch of Netanyahu’s own Likud party.

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)

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi told Kan public radio in an interview Sunday morning that while there have been talks with Blue and White on a potential minority government, there has not been an official proposal yet.

“We won’t elaborate on the talks, so that Netanyahu keeps being hysterical,” Tibi said. “We are willing to do a lot to kick out Netanyahu, the inciter and liar.”

Fellow Joint List lawmaker Mansour Abbas told Army Radio that Netanyahu himself had also held talks on a minority government after the April elections, but eventually chose to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections.

A minority government hinges on the support of Liberman, who has previously campaigned on tough policies against Arab Israelis and who regularly denounces them as illegitimate political figures.

Liberman hasn’t yet decided whether to back such a government, and on Sunday told the Ynet website that all options were on the table and that his party would make a decision by Tuesday night.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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