Some claim Gantz, Netanyahu closer to deal, but stumbling blocks unresolved

Sides still at odds over Knesset speaker, Justice Ministry and West Bank annexation, even as sources say government could be sworn in next week

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)
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)

Interim Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz were said in some reports to be inching closer to forming a unity coalition, with claims that the government could be sworn in as early as next Monday, but other sources said squabbles within the premier’s bloc were complicating the negotiations.

As the talks have dragged on, speculation has grown that Netanyahu might seek to string out the negotiations until Passover, when Gantz’s mandate from the president to form a coalition ends, reducing his leverage over Netanyahu.

The two sides have struggled to resolve differences over some ministry posts and the Knesset speaker slot. Gantz’s faction is demanding the lion’s share of the cabinet’s top positions and has rejected a request from the Likud party to again have Yuli Edelstein named speaker after he quit earlier this month rather than carry out a Supreme Court order to hold a vote on his successor. Gantz has also resisted Netanyahu’s plan to unilaterally extend Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley.

The Blue and White party’s significant demands have drawn the ire of Likud members and government ministers from other parties, who complain that Netanyahu is giving away too much in the coalition talks and sacrificing large parts of their legislative agenda, even as Gantz’s position has weakened significantly with his erstwhile allies Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon deciding not to follow him into a government with Netanyahu. Members of the right-wing Yamina party in particular have threatened to stay out of the government in protest.

On the left, the Labor party’s Merav Michaeli on Monday called for an “emergency meeting” of the faction’s leadership to block a reported proposal by chairman Amir Peretz for the party to join the government in exchange for him and his deputy, Itzik Shmuli, being guaranteed cabinet posts, arguing that such a move would require an internal vote.

Zionist Union parliament member Merav Michaeli attending a faction meeting in the Knesset, December 5, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The reports of Peretz’s proposed entrance into a unity government came as a shock to his followers, in light of his repeated insistence throughout two election campaigns that he would not serve under Netanyahu.

“This is an emergency. Yet we cannot take reckless steps that would trample the glorious internal democracy of the Labor party,” Michaeli wrote.

Despite the ongoing disagreements, the Haaretz daily on Monday night quoted Likud and Blue and White party leaders as saying they expected a deal to be finalized shortly, following a meeting between Netanyahu and Gantz, with a cabinet being sworn in as early as next Monday — the first time the State of Israel would have a fully functioning government in nearly a year and a half.

Until then, the two sides were continuing their negotiations, focusing mainly on the issues of Edelstein’s appointment and who will run the Justice Ministry, which will play a key role in prosecuting the corruption cases against Netanyahu in the coming months.

File: Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on January 22, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Earlier this week, the two sides appeared to have agreed that the position of Knesset speaker would be given to a member of the Likud party, but that Blue and White would have a veto over who was chosen, making it effectively impossible for Edelstein — whom Gantz’s party reportedly sees as unsuitable — to get the post.

However, on Tuesday, the Ynet news site reported that the matter was again being brought up by the negotiating teams, with the Likud considering making Edelstein’s appointment a requirement for an agreement.

The Kan public broadcaster reported on Monday night that senior Likud figures believed Netanyahu would back such a proposal.

Similarly, initial reports that the two sides had agreed that Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn could take over as justice minister appeared to fall apart in recent days, with the Likud demanding that Blue and White MK Chili Tropper take the post instead.

Chili Tropper. (Roni Schutzer/FLASH90)

The issue of West Bank annexation also remained unresolved as of Tuesday, though it appeared that Likud may be permitted to hold a Knesset vote on the matter, while members of Blue and White would not be forced to vote in favor of it. Instead they would be given leave to “vote their conscience,” in the parlance of such parliamentary agreements.

While Netanyahu made a declaration of Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements, as well as over the Jordan Valley, a staple of his campaign ahead of the March 2 election, Gantz offered mixed messages on the matter. He expressed support for annexing the Jordan Valley, but conditioned the measure on it being coordinated with the international community — an idea that appears far-fetched as the US has been the only country that has not rejected the prospect of annexation outright.

On Monday, the Yamina faction issued a public letter to Netanyahu in which it “established red lines” for the coalition being formed, warning that if they are crossed, the national religious slate would take its six seats and go to the opposition.

Various unconfirmed reports Sunday said that in the emerging government, Yamina would be cut down from three current minister positions — Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Education Minister Rafi Peretz — to just the education portfolio.

Amid criticism that his government will give too much power to the center and center-left factions, Netanyahu spoke to his right-wing and religious political allies on Sunday night to reassure them about the coalition talks, calling reports on the distribution of cabinet portfolios “total fake news.”

A meeting of the heads of the bloc of parties supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), January 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

In light of Yamina’s threats, Likud has been demanding that the new government contain no fewer than 36 minister portfolios, according to Blue and White sources cited by Hebrew-language media. This would make Israel’s cabinet far larger than those of countries several times larger than the Jewish state, drawing significant criticism of costly bloat from critics of the proposed unity government.

A Likud source told The Times of Israel that the current draft of the deal being discussed by Likud and Blue and White negotiators sees parity between the religious-right and center-left blocs, with several concessions being made on both sides.

A flurry of reports on Sunday suggested that the Likud, Yamina, United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, which are negotiating in coalition talks with Blue and White as a single bloc, were going to get at least 15 ministries in total in the new government.

According to the reports, the imminent deal would also see the 15-member Blue and White — possibly joined by three members of Labor and Gesher (Amir Peretz, Itzik Shmuli and Orly Levy-Abekasis) and by Telem MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, formerly of Blue and White — receive a similar number of cabinet portfolios, meaning almost every MK in Gantz’s party would become a minister.

The unity talks came after Gantz, in a shock move, was elected Knesset speaker Thursday, setting the stage for a coalition with Netanyahu and leading to the splintering of the Blue and White alliance, which had campaigned during the three elections over the past year on ousting Netanyahu.

Jacob Magid and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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