Blue and White calls off coalition talks over dispute on judicial appointments

After deal to form government was said close, Gantz’s party accuses Netanyahu’s Likud of seeking to renegotiate understandings reached on committee that selects judges

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

Having previously indicated a deal on an emergency unity government was done, the Blue and White party on Monday evening said it was breaking off coalition talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud over the latter’s efforts to walk back an agreement regarding judicial appointments.

“After reaching understandings on all issues, the Likud party asked to re-open discussions regarding the committee to appoint judges. In light of this, negotiations have been halted. We will not allow any change in the functioning of the judiciary nor damage to democracy,” Blue and White said in a statement.

The announcement came soon after reports said the parties had reached understandings on the final thorny negotiation issues, including the potential annexation of parts of the West Bank under the US peace proposal and power over the justice system.

The earlier reports indicated Benny Gantz’s party had given way on its demands vis-a-vis annexation, while Likud was said to have ceded ground on judicial issues.

Channel 12 reported that the agreement taking shape provided for Israel to annex up to 30% of the West Bank — all the settlements, and the Jordan Valley — by early summer.

Along with annexation, the issue of judicial appointments has been a key sticking point in talks. Likud has reportedly been pushing for changes to the makeup and selection powers of the Judicial Appointments Committee, due to apparent concerns that Shai Nitzan, the former state prosecutor who oversaw the corruption investigations that resulted in charges to Netanyahu, could be appointed to the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu’s party was previously said to have demanded veto rights in the appointments committee, or that decisions only pass with a majority of eight out of nine members. Those demands were then reported to have been nixed — with the parties agreeing that any decisions be made in agreement — before Likud was reported to have gone back on the matter, leading negotiations to stall.

Meanwhile, in recent days it had been reported that Likud had agreed to Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn being appointed justice minister despite early misgivings.

On the matter of annexation, the sides decided that the government will act with the full agreement of the US and in talks with the international community, while preserving strategic interests and peace deals, according to Hebrew media reports.

Under the reported deal, Netanyahu will consult with Gantz on the matter, but apparently will not require his agreement. A vote on annexation would be held within months and not delayed until the coronavirus outbreak has passed. Blue and White will not have a veto to block the vote, but will have a free hand in deciding how to vote.

Even without the backing of Blue and White, there would likely be sufficient support among right-wing MKs in the opposition’s Yisrael Beytenu to approve annexation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants a tree during an event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo’ot Yeriho, in the Jordan Valley, February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

Netanyahu views West Bank annexation as a legacy-making move and has been adamant about seeing through his election promise to annex all settlements and the Jordan Valley before he hands over the premiership to Gantz, as scheduled under the tentative coalition deal, in fall 2021.

While Gantz has voiced support for annexing parts of the West Bank under the aegis of Trump’s peace plan “in coordination with international community,” he has indicated opposition to acting unilaterally, amid concerns that the unilateral extension of Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and other areas could imperil diplomatic ties with Jordan.

The parties were also said to agree that Gantz will serve as defense minister before the scheduled rotation; Likud’s Yariv Levin will be the next Knesset speaker; Blue and White can choose between the foreign and education ministries, earmarked for Gabi Ashkenazi; the government will have 30 ministers before expanding to 34 after the COVID-19 crisis is over; and an expanded “Norwegian Law” will be passed, allowing for more members of Gantz’s party to enter the Knesset in place of ministers, who will resign their Knesset posts.

Following the reported agreement on annexation, Netanyahu phoned David Elhyani, head of the Yesha Council settlement umbrella group. He promised him that the new government would act to apply Israeli sovereignty over segments of the West Bank in the coming months, the council said in a statement.

According to a government official briefed on Netanyahu’s conversation with Elhayani, the premier told the settler leader that he had ensured he maintained full responsibility for the annexation issue in the unity government, and that he would bring it to a vote “in the coming few months,” without the ability for Gantz to veto it.

According to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu told settler leaders earlier this week that he expected annexation to happen in some five months, and added that he would not carry out his agreement with Gantz to rotate the premiership between them before it did.

“I promise you, I will not give rule over to Gantz before [annexation happens],” Netanyahu reportedly said.

The move would require cooperation with the United States and be made “in conversation” with the international community, the official said, adding he did not expect those two conditions to railroad the process.

Responding to the reported deal, left-wing and Arab lawmakers excoriated Gantz for his capitulation on annexation demands while right-wing lawmakers attacked Likud’s cave-in on judicial matters.

“Gantz has fallen to a new low and sold out all his values. In exchange for a handful of sweetheart appointments,” Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz said in a statement. “Gantz will enter a government under a premier with three indictments and will cave on annexation demands.”

He also said Gantz and Labor leader Amir Peretz, who was also reportedly poised to join the Netanyahu-led government, were aligning with hard-right leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Naftali Bennett “and dealing a fatal blow to the Zionist vision and the opportunity to split into two states.”

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, said Gantz “giving in on annexation is the most severe [move] yet.

“This means killing any chance at peace and cementing an apartheid state with Jewish citizens and Palestinian subjects,” he said in a statement.

Blue and White chair Benny Gantz (C) meeting with leaders of the Joint List alliance, Ayman Odeh (L) and Ahmed Tibi, October 31, 2019. (Ofek Avshalom)

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, who was part of Blue and White before the centrist alliance split over Gantz’s move towards a unity government with Netanyahu, said the deal was not a coalition agreement but a “surrender agreement.”

“I know what Benny Gantz thought about annexation and a large government and crooked laws, in the days that he still had a thought besides the desire that this would be over,” Shelah said in a statement.

Among Netanyahu’s right-wing religious partners, the national religious Yamina party fumed over the reported details of agreements on judicial issues, also accusing him of having “surrendered.”

Sources in Yamina told the Ynet news site Netanyahu was “kicking us to the opposition. Likud is giving rule [of the country] to the High Court.”

Meanwhile, it called on the premier to pass legislation conditioning the rotation agreement between him and Gantz on the approval of annexation in the West Bank.

“Otherwise, it is very clear we’ll remain without [it],” the party said in a statement.

The reported agreements in coalition talks came after Netanyahu and Gantz met Monday at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem for several hours, with their parties claiming progress toward forming a new government.

The negotiations on forming a government, which would see Netanyahu and Gantz switch off as prime minister, have gathered pace since the Blue and White leader was elected Knesset speaker on March 26. The move signaled Gantz’s readiness to partner Netanyahu in a breach of his and his Blue and White party’s campaign promises, and led to the collapse of his centrist alliance and a breach with former allies Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Moshe Ya’alon (Telem).

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