Draft of unity deal said to provide for Netanyahu to stay on in PM’s residence

Gantz reportedly wants to remain in his family home in any case even if he becomes prime minister in fall 2021 under a planned rotation agreement

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and his wife Sara Netanyahu host a dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie, at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on May 2, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and his wife Sara Netanyahu host a dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie, at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on May 2, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

A draft unity government agreement reportedly provides for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stay on in the official Prime Minister’s residence even after he hands over power to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in a rotation agreement, the Haaretz daily reported late Wednesday.

According to the report, Gantz agreed to the proposal because he wants to remain in his private home in the town of Rosh Ha’ayin during the period he would serve as prime minister in any case.

Blue and White sources told Haaretz that if the deal goes through, public money would only be used to fund the official residence in Jerusalem and not two homes were Netanyahu to choose to remain there after stepping down.

This follows an earlier report suggesting that the draft agreement called for the establishment of a new, official residence for Israel’s “acting prime minister” — the role Gantz is set to play for the first 18 months, and Netanyahu for the second 18 months, of their potential unity coalition.

A Channel 12 news report Wednesday evening initially said the provision for a state-provided official residence for the acting prime minister was a Likud demand, but later reported that both sides were claiming that the other initiated it.

If the deal is agreed, Netanyahu is set to remain prime minister, and continue to live in the official Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, until fall 2021. Meantime, Gantz would have some kind of boosted role as “acting prime minister.” Then Gantz would take over as prime minister, and Netanyahu would take the “acting” post.

While the Likud party responded to the TV report by calling it “fake news,” Blue and White said that Gantz planned on remaining in his private Rosh Ha’ayin residence until he takes over as prime minister.

The report of a shock demand for a presumably costly new residence — made at the height of an economic crisis that has left more than a million Israelis unemployed amid the battle against the coronavirus — came at the end of another round of talks on the “emergency coalition” that Gantz said last Thursday he would join.

Gantz explained at the time that a mixture of the pandemic crisis, the imperative to avoid a fourth round of elections and the threats to Israeli democracy left him no alternative but to abandon his promise to Blue and White voters through three elections not to sit in government with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister faces criminal charges.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for late Israeli president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

As the talks dragged on through Wednesday, the Blue and White party reportedly threatened to resume a legislative push for a law making it impossible for an indicted MK — such as Netanyahu — to serve as prime minister. But that threat apparently receded, and the talks were said to have made a little headway by Wednesday evening, and were set to continue through the night.

The sides were said to still be deadlocked over Gantz’s opposition to US-backed Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, under the Trump peace deal. But they were reportedly making some progress on other issues, including who will be the next Knesset speaker — Likud’s Yariv Levin, according to Channel 12 news. The sides were also reported to have agreed that Likud will hold the Justice Ministry and Blue and White the Ministry of Public Security, or vice-versa, with the other having a deputy minister, to ensure a consensus on policy in those ministries.

In a statement Wednesday evening, Gantz reiterated his assertion that he had no choice but to join forces with Netanyahu, and acknowledged the “disappointment” among some of his erstwhile supporters. But most Blue and White voters, he asserted, favored the idea of an emergency coalition.

But he sounded deeply pessimistic about how the move would play out, acknowledging that it might mark the end of his relatively brief political career. “The true narrative, which is more challenging that a ‘House of Cards’ script, obligated me to act in this way,” he said. “And if this is my political end, but I properly serve the State of Israel — then I will have done something.”

Before Gantz entered the unity talks, his then Blue and White partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon were pressing to advance legislation barring an indicted lawmaker from being tapped to form a government. The bill would also limit a prime minister to two terms in office.

The legislation is very clearly aimed at disqualifying Netanyahu, whose trial in three cases was due to start in March but has been postponed to May amid the pandemic. Lapid and Ya’alon had hoped that as the legislation was being advanced, the Likud leader would break and agree to a rotational government with Gantz, but with the Blue and White leader serving as prime minister first.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But breaking with his partners, Gantz said he would join a government with Netanyahu and serve as prime minister after the Likud leader, prompting the dissolution of Blue and White and kicking off coalition talks.

“Efforts are being made, but not I’m not sure whether a government will be established,” a source involved in the negotiations told Channel 12 on Wednesday afternoon.

The stumbling blocks preventing an agreement continue to center around the issue of West Bank annexation as well as the identity of the next justice minister and other senior officials.

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