Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz met briefly Monday morning but failed to bridge their gaps as talks on the formation of a unity government appeared to blow up.
Gantz had reportedly insisted in recent days that a deal was imminent, but looked set Monday to advance legislation that would disqualify his rival from continuing to serve as prime minister, essentially threatening to sink prospects of an agreement for good.
Despite reports indicating that talks had fallen apart, the Likud party put out a statement late Monday morning saying that negotiations were continuing.
The main bone of contention remains the makeup and mechanics of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which appoints judges, with Likud demanding greater control over the process.
After the meeting, Blue and White sources told Hebrew-language media that Gantz, who is the Knesset speaker, would call a plenum vote Monday on proposed legislation preventing Netanyahu from continuing to serve as premier due to his legal woes.
Gantz has been threatening to advance bills that would prevent anyone facing criminal charges from forming a government if a coalition deal isn’t reached by Monday.
Netanyahu faces fraud and breach of trust charges in three corruption cases, as well as a bribery charge in one of them.
As newly elected speaker of the Knesset, a position he took to retain leverage over Netanyahu, Gantz has the power to delay a vote on the proposals and shelve them until after a government is formed. The Blue and White leader has held up the bills until now as he negotiated with Likud, even though he seemingly had a majority in parliament to approve them together with his former partners in the anti-Netanyahu bloc.
However, Telem leader Moshe Ya’alon, a former Gantz ally in Blue and White, said Monday that he wouldn’t support the legislation, dismissing the bills as merely a pressure tactic aimed at securing a final coalition deal.
“These laws are too important to be used as a political game,” Ya’alon tweeted, addressing Gantz. “The only way is for you to stop negotiating with Netanyahu. You can’t use our votes to join an immunity and corruption government.”
Ya’alon’s Telem was part of Gantz’s Blue and White alliance before it dissolved last month as Gantz shifted to pushing for a unity government with Netanyahu to handle the coronavirus crisis.
Two of his rightist lawmakers, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, have broken ranks to form their own faction and have joined Gantz in coalition talks.
Ya’alon is a former Likud minister who served as defense chief under Netanyahu, until his resignation in 2016, when his job was given to Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.
Liberman on Sunday urged Gantz to drop coalition talks and advance the anti-Netanyahu legislation.
Gantz has in recent days appeared hesitant about the threatened legislation. According to the Kan public broadcaster, Likud has warned Blue and White that it will immediately call off the talks if Gantz’s party advances legislation that would bar a Knesset member under indictment, such as Netanyahu, from forming a government.
“This is a red line for us,” Likud sources were quoted as saying.
Reports said Sunday that Gantz was also threatening to push for a reshuffle of the Knesset’s judicial appointments panel if the talks fall apart and fourth successive elections are called.
In a Facebook post directed at Gantz on Sunday night, Liberman said Netanyahu was stringing the Blue and White chairman along in coalition talks and that legislation was the only way to prevent Netanyahu from remaining prime minister.
“Benny Gantz, this is your moment of truth. As someone who knows Netanyahu better than anyone, I assess that he won’t sign a coalition deal with you, not today, not tomorrow. Meanwhile, all he’s done is buy time,” Liberman wrote.
On Saturday night, Channel 12 reported that Gantz had told associates that his party and Likud were “on the brink of a deal” to form a government, after weeks of political wrangling.
Gantz cited “a breakthrough” in talks between the sides, according to the report, and said he saw no reason in principle why the parties could not sign a coalition deal in the next day or so.
During coalition talks, Netanyahu’s Likud has demanded veto rights in the Judicial Appointments Committee, or to have decisions only pass with the support of eight out of the nine members. Those demands were then shelved — with the parties agreeing that any decisions on judicial appointments be made by consensus — before Likud was reported to have gone back on the matter, leading negotiations to stall.
Another key issue was reportedly Netanyahu’s concern that the High Court may rule that he cannot be prime minister due to the criminal charges against him, a development that could leave Gantz as premier for the whole term of their coalition. Netanyahu has therefore reportedly been trying to engineer some kind of legislative guarantee that Gantz would not take over as prime minister in the event of such a court ruling.
Netanyahu is also believed to be looking at recent favorable polling that shows him with a comfortable majority if an election were held today — though public opinion could rapidly sway in the coming months, depending on developments on the coronavirus front and the government’s handling of it.
President Reuven Rivlin informed Gantz on Thursday morning that his mandate to form a government had ended, after he failed to present a coalition to the Knesset by Wednesday’s midnight deadline.
This in turn triggered the start of a 21-day period during which the Knesset as a whole may select a candidate with majority support to form a government. The move was widely seen as intended to force Netanyahu and Gantz to stop dithering and seal a unity deal quickly amid the coronavirus pandemic. If no candidate is agreed on by 61 MKs in the 21 days, Israel would head into its fourth elections since April 2019.
Israel has been led by a caretaker government since December 2018, when the 20th Knesset dissolved. Since then, three consecutive elections have failed to yield a new government, creating an unprecedented political crisis.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.