Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz said Wednesday he remains committed to forming a “national emergency government” after calling off coalition talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party this week, but there’s a limit to how much he’ll compromise to do so.
In a Facebook post, Gantz put the blame for the stalled talks on Netanyahu, saying the sides had nearly reached a coalition agreement when Likud sought to change an understanding reached on judicial appointments.
“We informed them that we want a national emergency government, but not at any cost,” Gantz wrote.
“Joining forces in a crisis is important, but in times like these, protecting democracy and the rule of law for the future of Israel is critically important,” he added.
However, Likud said in a statement that it was Gantz who backed away from the agreements between the parties to form an “equal unity government.”
“From the first moment, it was agreed that the unity government would stand on two clear lines — joint decision-making on all issues and promoting the application of sovereignty [over the West Bank]. Unfortunately, at the last minute, Blue and White reversed on these agreements, which are a necessary basis for any equal unity government.
“The moment that Blue and White returns to the agreements it will be possible to complete the deal. Spin doesn’t bring unity closer but rather distances it,” Likud said.
Netanyahu told Radio 103FM that he is determined to establish an emergency unity government but annexation of parts of the West Bank was key for him.
“I said from the start that the issue of sovereignty was important to me, and I stand by it,” he said.
A report on Channel 12 on Wednesday indicated that Netanyahu may have torpedoed the talks after polling showed his Likud party easily winning a possible fourth round of elections.
According to a Maariv newspaper poll published Wednesday, Likud would win 42 seats with Blue and White receiving just 18 mandates in a possible fourth election. The third largest party would be the Joint List with 16 seats and then Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid taking 9 seats.
The poll gave 64 seats to the right-wing bloc, a clear majority.
Six hundred people were questioned for the survey. The newspaper did not give any details of methodology or margin of error.
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 Likud.
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 Gantz’s party had given way on its demands vis-à-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.
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.
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.
The negotiations on forming a government, which would see Netanyahu and Gantz switch off as prime minister, had 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 Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Moshe Ya’alon (Telem).
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.