From PM’s legal troubles to coalition assurances, many unity issues still open

From PM’s legal troubles to coalition assurances, many unity issues still open

Gantz, Netanyahu have reportedly agreed on a series of top portfolios, but many unknowns remain, including who else in the anti-Netanyahu camp could yet join

Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, right. (Flash90)
Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, right. (Flash90)

With Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Resilience head Benny Gantz seemingly headed toward forging a unity government, several matters remain unsettled and could still unravel the deal before it is finalized, according to Hebrew media reports.

Among the issues yet to be resolved are the distribution of a number of ministry portfolios and other senior posts, and promises the two parties are looking to extract from each other regarding what kind of legislation they will advance, particularly regarding Netanyahu’s legal fate.

On Thursday, Gantz was sworn in as Knesset speaker with the support of Likud, signaling an apparent unity deal between the two that would put a year-long political deadlock to rest. Gantz, who had promised not to sit under Netanyahu as prime minister because of indictments in three criminal cases against him, said he was putting aside his vow given the health crisis plaguing the world.

His partners from the Yesh Atid and Telem parties, which had come together to form the Blue and White political alliance a year ago, swiftly filed to split off from him, leaving the former general at the head of an attenuated faction with fewer than half the seats of Netanyahu’s Likud.

According to the reported deal taking shape, Gantz is set to partner with Netanyahu in a unity coalition, serving initially as foreign or defense minister and then taking over as prime minister in September 2021 — though many political analysts doubt that such a rotation will actually take place.

The deal also reportedly includes an agreement that Gantz’s deputy Gabi Ashkenazi will take the defense or foreign ministry portfolio — whichever Gantz turns down — while another Israel Resilience MK will be justice minister, possibly Chili Tropper.

Blue and White MK and chairman of the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Gabi Ashkenazi, leads a committee discussion on the data of the Ultra Orthodox recruits to the army, in the Knesset, on December 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Resilience is also reportedly set to receive the economy, culture and communications ministries, among others. Meanwhile Likud will hold on to the finance, public security and Knesset speakership posts among others, while its right-wing / ultra-Orthodox partners will keep control of the interior and health portfolios.

One major issue that has not been resolved is how the emerging coalition will deal with Netanyahu’s upcoming trial, which was due to start March 17 but was postponed to May amid the coronavirus crisis. According to the Ynet news site, Israel Resilience wants assurances that there will be no legislation attempting to undermine the justice system’s work, while Likud wants promises there won’t be any legislative efforts to personally hurt the prime minister (such as a previously floated bill to prevent a person under indictment from leading the country).

Channel 12 news reported Thursday that one of Gantz’s demands from Netanyahu is an assurance that he honors their rotation agreement and that some form of legislation be put in place stipulating that if Netanyahu dissolves the coalition ahead of September 2021, Gantz immediately becomes head of the interim government in his stead.

Another unknown is what position Netanyahu would fill if and when he indeed steps down and hands the premiership over to Gantz. (Unlike a prime minister, who is not specifically barred from staying in office under criminal indictment, a minister cannot continue in office if charged.)

As for Netanyahu, having apparently surrendered most of the top portfolios to Gantz and needing to satisfy the other partners from his bloc in the likely coalition, he will be required to heavily cut down on the portfolios his Likud party holds, no doubt disappointing many top members of his party and setting up clashes and internal hostilities.

He may also be setting up a clash with the Yamina party, which currently holds the defense, transportation and education ministries and will likely lose at least two of those three portfolios.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett gives a video statement on fighting in the Gaza Strip, at a gas station in southern Israel, February 24, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Meanwhile, Yisrael Beytenu and its head Avigdor Liberman is ostensibly headed to the opposition, but with his main leverage over Netanyahu now gone, the right-wing politician who sought a secularist government could yet walk back his promises not to sit with religious parties and join the coalition.

Rumors also flew Thursday that Labor leader Amir Peretz and MK Itzik Shmuli could join the new coalition, though they would likely have little support from others in their party. Peretz and Shmuli helped fuel those rumors by remaining markedly silent as the political system blew up around them.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, left, and Labor party leader Amir Peretz meet to discuss coalition talks, on March 11, 2020. (Blue and White/Elad Malka)

Also unclear at this time is the fate of two rightist MKs in MK Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party — Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel — who were major proponents of a unity deal and major factors behind Gantz failing in an earlier bid to form a minority government back by Arab MKs.

With their party now firmly headed toward the opposition, opinions differed as to whether the two would be forced to tag along, or could legally split from their party and join Gantz in the coalition.

Knesset members Yoaz Hendel (L) and Zvi Hauser (R) seen at the Knesset , ahead of the opening session of the new government, on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Channel 12 reported Thursday that two major factors in Gantz’s decision to move forward with his bid for unity despite the prospect of tearing apart Blue and White were internal polling that indicated the alliance was in trouble in the sphere of public opinion, as well as a phone call with the head of the Shas party.

The report said surveys conducted by Blue and White in recent days had confirmed what public surveys had shown: that the party had suffered serious damage in public opinion for attempting, and failing, to form a minority government with the support of the Joint List. Polls indicated a new election would see Netanyahu, also buoyed by the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, achieve a 61-seat majority in parliament for his bloc.

And it said that Shas leader Aryeh Deri promised Gantz he would ensure that any agreements with Netanyahu are honored. Gantz was apparently convinced of his candor.

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