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PM calls on Gantz to meet, resolve differences

Gantz officially requests extension of mandate to form gov’t as talks drag on

Top Likud ministers signal party will fight for Netanyahu to receive baton, arguing he is expected to lead the unity government anyway

Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right. (Flash90)
Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right. (Flash90)

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on Saturday requested a two-week extension from President Reuven Rivlin Sunday on his mandate to form a government, amid stalled unity talks with Likud.

The current mandate expires overnight between Sunday and Monday.

In his request Gantz cited the coronavirus pandemic and the Passover holiday as having caused delay in negotiations to form a government. He said he had moved towards forming a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due to the “political, health and social crisis…even while paying a heavy political and personal price.”

Gantz said he believed the sides were “close to signing a deal, and this necessitates more time in order to reach a final agreement.”

Reminding the president that he was toiling to bring about the latter’s own September proposal for a power-sharing government, Gantz said he believed “we can meet the challenge.”

Meanwhile, two top Likud ministers signaled that Netanyahu’s party was poised to oppose Gantz’s request, and to ask Rivlin to task Netanyahu with forming the government.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz reasoned in a statement that as both Likud and Blue and White have agreed that Netanyahu would be the first to lead a unity government, it makes sense to hand him the baton and not extend Gantz’s time.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the country needs a “stable government to deal with the big challenges ahead of us and in this case, the mandate should be given to Benjamin Netanyahu who has a higher chance of rapidly forming a wide, stable government.”

In a statement to the press Saturday evening, Netanyahu called on Gantz to meet immediately at his residence along with negotiating teams to “advance negotiations.”

Blue and White said in response it would continue with the efforts to form a government but “We’ll conduct contacts through official negotiating channels and not through the media.”

Blue and White and the Likud are believed to have been on the cusp of reaching a deal this week, before Likud asked to reopen discussions on judicial appointments, leading talks to blow up.

Some commentators have speculated that Likud is stalling for time to allow Gantz’s mandate to expire, potentially weakening his bargaining position.

Gantz adviser Ronen Tzur told Channel 12 Saturday that the parties were “only a step away from forming an emergency government. What was agreed upon is the basis for signing [a deal] and that could be done this very night.”

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on February 27, 2019. (Flash90)

Coalition negotiations between Likud and Blue and White reportedly resumed Friday, but there were still no signs a deal to form a new government was nearing.

On Saturday evening, Netanyahu called on Gantz to meet at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem to continue talks “out of national responsibility.”

Netanyahu and Gantz spoke Wednesday before the start of the Passover holiday, agreeing to resume negotiations after Passover and stressing their commitment to forming a government.

Hours earlier, their parties traded blame for the impasse in talks, with Gantz claiming the sides had nearly reached a coalition agreement but Likud sought to change an understanding reached on judicial appointments.

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

Gantz, for his part, was said to have acquiesced on the potential annexation of parts of the West Bank under the US peace proposal, relinquishing his demand for a veto on the matter.

Channel 12 reported Friday that Gantz was unwilling to back down on judicial issues because safeguarding Israel’s judiciary was one of his key justifications for walking back his promise to never serve under Netanyahu, who has been charged in three corruption cases.

An unsourced Channel 13 news report on Friday said that besides the issue of judicial appointments, another sticking point in the coalition talks was Netanyahu’s concern the High Court of Justice could rule that a Knesset member under indictment cannot be tasked with forming the government.

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset elections, on March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The court declined to rule on the matter in January, saying it would be “premature” to do so before the March 2 elections since it was unclear at that time whether Netanyahu would be tapped to assemble a government.

According to the Friday TV report, Netanyahu wants to expand legislation anchoring the agreement that he hand over the prime ministership to Gantz 18 months from now — which the parties are set to pass — to include additional provisions designed to deter the High Court from hearing a petition that could disqualify Netanyahu from serving as prime minister.

It was unclear from the report what exactly this kind of legislation would entail.

Gantz’s party has been holding coalition talks with Likud in which both leaders would rotate as premier, with Netanyahu serving first. The negotiations picked up pace after Gantz was elected Knesset speaker with the backing of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, causing Blue and White to split.

It wasn’t clear whether Rivlin would be willing to extend Gantz’s mandate since under Israeli law, the Knesset member tasked by the president with forming a government is the one who heads it, and the ongoing negotiations are for a government headed by Netanyahu. (A rotation agreement isn’t anchored in Israeli law, and relies on the premier who serves first voluntarily resigning after a certain period of time.)

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