Gantz tells Rivlin he’ll likely request extension of mandate to form government

President says he will consider request when April 13 deadline approaches; Blue and White leader updates him on coalition talks with Likud

President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz with forming a government in a ceremony at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz with forming a government in a ceremony at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz said Sunday that he will likely seek an extension of his mandate to form a government, which will expire over the Passover holiday.

He informed President Reuven Rivlin of his intention during a phone call, Blue and White said in a statement.

Rivlin said he would consider the request, if filed, in light of the circumstances Gantz will present as the April 13 deadline gets closer, according to the statement.

Blue and White said Gantz had also updated Rivlin on the talks to form “an emergency government and national unity” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

Gantz’s party has been holding coalition talks with Likud on forming a government in which the two 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.)

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)

Netanyahu was forced into quarantine last week after meeting with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who was confirmed Wednesday night as a COVID-19 carrier. The prime minister met Gantz — albeit at a distance — on Friday to advance negotiations toward a unity government, with both sides saying afterwards that significant progress was made.

The meeting was described as a “positive” one during which “understandings were reached,” according to a rare joint statement from their offices. The two party leaders instructed their negotiating teams “to try and bring about a coalition agreement between Blue and White and Likud as soon as possible,” it added.

The joint statement itself was seen as a sign of the progress in the talks.

Channel 13 said Gantz sat on the patio of the Prime Minister’s Residence and Netanyahu stayed inside. “The conversation featured raised voices,” it reported, but of necessity rather than in anger.

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. At left is Benny Gantz. Center, with back to camera, is Benjamin Netanyahu (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

In a Facebook post following the meeting, Gantz said that a deal was within reach but that a number of hurdles still remain.

“It is clear to all of us that there is no other alternative for either party [other than a unity deal] and that the State of Israel needs a government,” Gantz wrote.

Disagreements over ministerial appointments have been solved, according to Channel 13, with Likud agreeing to Blue and White’s top choice of Avi Nissenkorn for justice minister, so long as it has some veto power over the appointment of Supreme Court justices.

Blue and White has also agreed to allow Litzman remain as health minister, despite the growing calls for his ouster over his handling of the virus outbreak and amid allegations — which Litzman denies — that he flouted his own ministry’s guidelines on social distancing.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

But disputes still remain over the issue of West Bank annexation, according to an official involved in the negotiations.

Netanyahu views the move as a legacy-maker and has been adamant about seeing the election promise through before he hands over to Gantz, as scheduled under the tentative deal, in fall 2021.

Gantz, on the other hand, has long opposed unilateral annexation but recognizes that the right-wing bloc currently has a majority in support for the move, thanks to the votes of Telem defectors Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser as well as Yisrael Beytenu’s seven MKs from the opposition. He therefore is hoping to influence the decision from the powerful position of defense minister, which he is slated to become, Channel 12 reported.

The basis of the “emergency unity government,” which Gantz agreed to in principle last month (when he shocked many of his fellow faction members by blocking the nomination of an anti-Netanyahu lawmaker as Knesset speaker), will see the Likud leader stay on as premier for 18 months before being replaced for an equal amount of time by the Blue and White head.

Blue and White was also reportedly seeking to anchor the rotation agreement in law to ensure that Netanyahu vacates the office in late 2021.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (C) speaks to reporters during a visit to the Jordan Valley on January 21, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Gantz explained at the time that a mixture of the pandemic crisis, the imperative to avoid a fourth round of elections and the threats to Israeli democracy left him no alternative but to abandon his promise to Blue and White voters through three elections not to sit in government with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister faces criminal charges.

As talks faltered last week, Blue and White reportedly threatened to resume a legislative push for a law making it impossible for an indicted MK — such as Netanyahu — to serve as prime minister.

Before Gantz became Knesset speaker, his then-Blue and White partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon were pressing to advance legislation barring an indicted lawmaker from being tapped to form a government. The bill would also limit a prime minister to two terms in office.

Lapid and Ya’alon had hoped that as the legislation was being advanced, the Likud leader would agree to a rotational government with Gantz, but with the Blue and White leader serving as prime minister first.

But breaking with his partners, Gantz said he would join a government with Netanyahu and serve as prime minister after the Likud leader, prompting the dissolution of Blue and White and kicking off the coalition talks.

Israel has held three national elections in under a year.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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