National Unity, Likud appear to near deal for emergency unity cabinet

Netanyahu offers arrangement without preconditions, Gantz wants narrow war cabinet, his party says deal now likely; Lapid’s Yesh Atid not involved in negotiations

Then-defense minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a consultation during Hamas rocket fire at Israel and IDF counterstrikes, May 11, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO / File)
Then-defense minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a consultation during Hamas rocket fire at Israel and IDF counterstrikes, May 11, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO / File)

Representatives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and MK Benny Gantz’s opposition National Unity party met Monday to discuss the possibility of forming an emergency unity government, with a potential breakthrough in the offing.

The discussions came amid urgent calls for such an arrangement among the opposition and coalition, with Israel facing an unprecedented war against Gazan terror groups following the massacre of over 900 civilians and soldiers in Saturday’s assault and the hostage-taking of over 100 people.

A source in Gantz’s National Unity said Monday night that progress has been made in the discussions to bring the party into the government and that a deal is now likely.

“The ball is now in [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s court, [but] we hope that tomorrow we’ll be able to bless the finished product,” said the source.

A report by the Kan public broadcaster, which first published news of an imminent agreement, said that sources involved in the discussions between Netanyahu and Gantz that “the conditions for an emergency government are now ripe” and that a final decision will be made after a meeting of coalition leaders on Tuesday.

National Unity has said it wants a small war cabinet to be set up with representation from its party and “real influence” for its cabinet members over the management of the war in order to join the government.

But Netanyahu appeared to reject conditional offers by Gantz and Opposition Chair Yair Lapid for such an arrangement Monday evening, two days after war erupted when Hamas terrorists launched their multipronged attack.

For two days, barrages of rockets have rained down on Israeli towns as security forces fought to reestablish control of Gaza border communities.

In a speech Monday, the prime minister called on the opposition to join a national unity government with “no preconditions.”

“The internal rift is over. We are united and when we are united we win. The nation is united, and now, the leadership needs to unite. I call on opposition leaders to establish a national emergency government, as was established with Menachem Begin before the Six Day War (in 1967),” he said.

Only Gantz’s National Unity is currently involved in discussions with the prime minister to form a unity government, with Lapid’s Yesh Atid party having ruled out joining if the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties remain in the coalition.

Lapid and his party have been harsh critics of Netanyahu and the prime minister’s right-wing, far-right, and religious coalition, and have called to end that government in light of its moves to weaken judicial checks on political power, as well as having put ultranationalist extremists in sensitive security roles.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid in a statement to the media, October 7, 2023. (Video screenshot)

Before the meeting, a spokesperson for National Unity told The Times of Israel earlier that the talks were progressing.

However, a source in the party expressed disappointment with the prime minister’s comments, saying they wished he had expressed greater urgency and willingness to meet with Gantz on Monday.

Gantz’s National Unity proposed Monday that in order for it to join an emergency unity government, a small “war cabinet” must be created, with representatives from its party as well as “relevant ministers” chosen by Netanyahu, that will direct the war against Hamas, hinting he would not accept ministers without military experience such as many of the existing far-right and ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition.

Most of the powers for conducting a war would need to be delegated to this war cabinet, the party said in a statement to the press, made following the meeting earlier between representatives of National Unity and Netanyahu’s Likud to discuss the entry of Gantz’s party into the government.

The party said it was proposing that its representatives be made ministers without portfolios, as opposed to taking new or current cabinet positions, for the duration of the war.

Additionally, legislation not connected to the war cannot be passed in the Knesset during the tenure of this emergency government, National Unity stipulated, a seeming reference to the government’s highly controversial judicial overhaul agenda.

The National Unity source told The Times of Israel that they were unsure as to whether Netanyahu agrees with this proposal, and why there were ongoing delays to the efforts to form a unity government.

Multiple Likud sources declined to comment on the progress of the talks.

Unnamed Likud officials told the Walla news site that Netanyahu disapproved of providing National Unity with any veto on decisions, and wants to have the last say in matters.

National Unity has said it would give its full backing to the government and the security forces during the war, regardless of whether it ends up joining it.

Netanyahu said Saturday night that he had offered both National Unity and Yesh Atid the option of joining the government. The three met to discuss on forming an arrangement, with the Likud party saying that such a government would have the same format as the Levi Eshkol government that then-opposition leader Menachem Begin joined before the Six Day War in 1967.

Gantz, a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff, has been insistent that he and senior party members play a major role in shaping Israel’s response to the attack before committing to join a Netanyahu-led cabinet again.

Gantz led his political party, then dubbed Blue and White, into a short-lived Netanyahu-led power-sharing government in May 2020 to tackle the COVID-19 epidemic. The deal was to see him become prime minister after 18 months, but the government collapsed before that could happen, when Netanyahu refused to approve the state budget, using a loophole in the coalition deal that allowed him to avoid handing Gantz the premiership.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader MK Avigdor Liberman arrives to a court hearing on petitions against a government law at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, September 28, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu party chair Avigdor Liberman said in a Sunday letter to the prime minister and cabinet that his party would enter a unity government on condition that Netanyahu and his top defense officials commit publicly to eliminating Hamas’s entire leadership and that all arrangements allowing for financial assistance from Qatar and other sources to Gaza be ended.

“I am not requesting to be a minister, we aren’t requesting any coalition agreement or roles. But we don’t intend to be a fig leaf, I was in this scenario before,” he wrote.

Both Lapid and Gantz, as well as Liberman, previously served in governments with Netanyahu. The three one-time political allies have since become rivals to the prime minister, whom they have called untrustworthy and corrupt.

Natan Eshel, a close associate of Netanyahu, earlier told the Israel National News site that Gantz’s demands “show his true face, that his whole motive is to dismantle the right-wing government.”

Eshel also denounced Lapid’s condition on entering the government that Netanyahu’s far-right partners be booted.

“I am against boycotts and excommunication. Religious Zionism will justifiably not accept the demand when the best of them are on the front,” he said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, chair of Religious Zionism, called on Netanyahu and Gantz to immediately agree to an emergency unity government to manage the war, responding to an address by Gantz on Sunday night, in which he expressed willingness to join the government “with the intention of establishing a war cabinet that will direct the battlefront against Gaza and other fronts.”

“Unity and cohesion are the imperative of the hour in order to defeat our enemies,” Smotrich said in a statement. “Never mind [negotiation] teams, and never mind negotiations.”

File: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich arrives to a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Knesset speaker Amir Ohana, from Likud, said in a social media post that “soldiers in the field are unified. The people are unified. Unity government — immediately.”

Arnon Bar David, the chief of the Histadrut labor federation, said in a statement an emergency government should have been already created “an hour earlier.”

“In this difficult hour, when the people of Israel are at war, this is not the moment to set terms or waste time. These are some of the most painful and difficult days we have known as a country and as a society. The pain is unbearable, and this is the time for unified and consolidated leadership. We will hurt, we will fight, and we will win only together,” he said.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat of Likud called for an immediate establishment of a unity government.

“In this complicated time, we need to put the divisions to the side and unify against an enemy that wants to exterminate us. IDF soldiers from all parts of Israeli society are going to fight for the State of Israel and we need to back them with a unity government that represents the entire nation,” he said.

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis of Likud said: “It’s a time for unity for Israel and as broad a government as possible, in the face of an enemy whose cruelty knows no bounds.”

Otzma Yehudit Mk Limor Son Har-Melech told the Israel Hayom daily that, while a unity government was needed, it “cannot come at the expense of natural [coalition] partners.”

Netanyahu has relied on far-right and Haredi political allies for a ruling coalition, with the center-left and some fellow right-wing parties staunchly opposed to backing him during more peaceful times, in part due to his legal woes.

Some observers have pointed to unprecedented societal divisions wrought by the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary and attendant protests as having given Hamas the impression that Israel was weakened and ripe for attack.

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