Dismay in Blue and White that Haim Ramon representing party

Crunch time for Gantz, Netanyahu as last-ditch talks held to avoid elections

No deal by Tuesday night means automatic vote; defense minister said to agree to chip away at justice minister’s powers, angering party members; Blue and White denies report

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Two days before the Knesset is set to dissolve automatically, Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s party denied on Sunday that an agreement to stave off elections had been reached with the Likud party that included reducing the powers of Blue and White’s Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn.

The two parties continued their negotiations over the weekend, with some officials expressing optimism that a deal could be reached in time to pass a quick law postponing the budget deadline for a second time, giving them breathing space to pass more complex legislation regarding the state budget and changes to the current laws anchoring the power-sharing coalition agreement.

A failure to pass a budget is the lone loophole in the rotation agreement that would let Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu avoid having to give up the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. Likud has been holding up the budget for months in an effort to renegotiate a more favorable coalition agreement that would see Netanyahu’s one-and-half-year term extended at the expense of Gantz’s equivalent allotment of time as premier. Likud is also seeking to curb the influence of Nissenkorn.

An unsourced report by the Haaretz daily on Sunday claimed that Gantz had agreed to clip Nissenkorn’s wings in exchange for closing the budget loophole. The report said there was opposition to the move within Blue and White, including from its No. 2 Gabi Ashkenazi, and that it was unclear whether the deal could be approved by the party.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn speaks in the Knesset plenary before a vote to form four committees including the Coronavirus Committee, March 24, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)

A core Likud demand has been firing Nissenkorn as justice minister, but after Blue and White’s blanket refusal, the focus has reportedly shifted to possibly reducing some of his areas of responsibility, which could cause him to resign.

Fierce disagreements between Gantz and Nissenkorn were reported by Channel 12 news, with the defense minister charging overnight that Nissenkorn “is more concerned with his own job than with Blue and White.”

Netanyahu is said to be primarily interested in preventing Nissenkorn from appointing a state attorney and attorney general — two positions seen as critical to Netanyahu, whose criminal trial is slated to resume soon — and new Supreme Court judges of his liking. Nissenkorn also opposes efforts by Netanyahu allies to reform the justice system, appoint more conservative judges and limit the power of the courts more broadly.

One of the possible compromises would require Nissenkorn to propose more nominees as state attorney besides the already selected Amit Aisman. According to the reported compromise, the justice minister will have to nominate no fewer than five candidates for state attorney, with the government making the final pick.

The attorney general will reportedly be selected via a new political mechanism, and the law will be changed for Supreme Court judges to only be appointed if their nomination is supported by eight of the nine members of the Judicial Appointments Committee, instead of the current seven. That would effectively hand committee members Miri Regev and Osnat Mark (Likud) a veto.

Haaretz quoted a Blue and White source as saying Gantz was suffering a “panic attack” and was willing “to slaughter the justice system for two more months as defense minister.”

Blue and White MKs Avi Nissenkorn (L) and Gabi Ashkenazi during a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A joint statement issued by Gantz, Ashkenazi and Nissenkorn alleged that “the media publications are false and don’t reflect Blue and White’s conduct. We won’t compromise on maintaining a functioning government while safeguarding democracy and law enforcement bodies and guaranteeing a state budget that will take care of the economic coronavirus [fallout]. Any report or spin invented by interested parties is the sole responsibility of the reporter. Enough with the lies.”

While Blue and White has asserted that Likud should be expected to adhere to the agreement that the parties signed, Netanyahu’s faction is seen to be taking advantage of Gantz’s slate’s almost complete decline in the polls since he decided last March to abandon his main election promise and serve in a Netanyahu-led government after declaring for months that the Likud leader could not be trusted.

Sources involved in the negotiations were cited Saturday night by the Ynet website as saying the 2020 budget could be passed immediately and the 2021 budget could be finished and approved by next month, and that the coalition deal clause stipulating that Gantz will succeed Netanyahu as premier in November 2021 could be insured.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana holds a press conference in Jerusalem, on July 15, 2020. (FLASH90)

Others said the most likely outcome was early elections being called this week, including Likud’s Public Security Minister Amir Ohana who told Channel 12 on Saturday: “There are still gaps. We don’t want elections but it seems like that is where it’s going. I assess it’s going to elections. We would be happy for last-minute surprises.”

Until several weeks ago, Likud members had regularly told the press that the partnership with Blue and White was not working and that elections were needed.

Blue and White sources told the Haaretz daily that the party would insist on closing the loophole that allows Netanyahu to avoid handing over power to Gantz by withholding the state budget. The sources acknowledged the chances for Likud agreeing to that weren’t high, but added that Netanyahu could agree to it in light of unflattering recent opinion polls.

Kan reported that Likud was insisting that a compromise would see a delay in the date in which Gantz is set to replace him as prime minister. Gantz is refusing that demand.

Not all members of Blue and White are happy with the negotiations, and many of them are reportedly preparing to oppose a deal with Likud if one is reached or even to resign. Coupled with several rebel Likud members who have formed a new rival party under MK Gideon Sa’ar, that means even if a compromise is reached, it won’t necessarily have a sufficient majority of supporters in the Knesset.

Gantz was said to have met Sa’ar on Saturday night.

An unnamed senior party member was quoted Sunday by the Kan public broadcaster as slamming Gantz’s conduct and willingness to compromise as “absurd.”

The criticism also concerns Gantz’s decision to use former minister Haim Ramon as his representative in the negotiations. Ramon, who was convicted in the past of a sexual offense, is a proponent of judicial reforms vehemently opposed by Nissenkorn, who wasn’t told ahead of time that Ramon would represent the party in the talks.

Israelis  wearing masks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a protest in Tel Aviv on December 2, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Gantz said Friday that he would not compromise on the coalition agreement and that if Netanyahu’s party refused to adhere to that deal, he was prepared to take his party to another round of elections.

“The situation is simple,” Ganz wrote in his Friday post. “I led Blue and White to form a unity government with Netanyahu because of two pandemics: the coronavirus pandemic and the pandemic of division in our society.”

“We will remain in the government only if it works to eradicate both — the economic [ramifications of the] coronavirus that cannot be fought without passing an expanded and stable state budget and a functioning government, along with the attempts to undermine democracy and undermine the agreement between us and Likud. There will be no compromises,” Gantz asserted.

In its response, Likud said in a statement of its own that “the continuation of government activity requires compromises on all sides so we can continue working to provide vaccines and financial assistance to the citizens of Israel as we see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“It would be a shame to drag the country to elections at this time, but if elections are forced upon us, we will be prepared, and we will win,” the party added.

The developments came after the parties on Thursday evening denied reports claiming sudden progress had been made toward reaching an election-preventing compromise.

The impending dissolution of the Knesset is a direct result of the impasse over the national budget, which has long been held up by Likud in what is widely believed to be an effort to prevent Gantz from succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister, as stipulated by their power-sharing agreement.

Blue and White has been demanding that a budget be passed for 2020 and 2021 together, as the coalition deal stipulates, while Netanyahu insisted on one that only covers the rest of 2020, citing the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. But the passage of a one-year budget could allow Netanyahu to kick off new elections down the line without having to hand over the premiership to Gantz next year, as the deal says.

At any rate, failure to pass a budget by Tuesday night will trigger automatic elections.

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