Last-ditch unity meeting appears to fail, with PM and Gantz trading accusations

Blue and White chief says joint coalition ‘cannot be built on sectoral bloc’; Netanyahu accuses rival of seeking a minority government; Liberman set to announce decisions Wednesday

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz’s final efforts to forge a unity government before the end of the latter’s mandate to do so appeared to have failed late Tuesday, with both leaders trading accusations in statements issued shortly after the conclusion of a one-hour meeting.

The meeting held at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem lasted just over an hour, with a source close to the negotiations telling the the Times of Israel that no progress was made.

Officials in Yisrael Beytenu, whose party is the deciding factor on whether Netanyahu or Gantz will be able to form a government without the other, told The Times of Israel that leader Avigdor Liberman would announce his decision on whether to support either Gantz or Netanyahu, or neither, at a 1 p.m. faction meeting on Wednesday.

In his statement Gantz, who had 24 hours left until his deadline to form a governing coalition, said he would “continue to make every effort and turn every stone to try to reach understandings and form a government even in the remaining time, in order to prevent costly and unnecessary elections that are contrary to the will of the citizens of Israel.”

While a third election was not desired, “We can not give up [our] basic principles and values.”

Signalling that he would not give in to Netanyahu’s demand to enter a coalition along with the premier’s entire bloc of 55 MKs from the right-wing and religious parties, Gantz said he wanted to form a “a government whose basic principles will be set by the major parties and therefore cannot be built on the basis of one or another sectoral bloc.”

The premier, meanwhile, said Gantz was rejecting President Reuven Rivlin’s power-sharing proposal for a unity government that would see Netanyahu serve as prime minister first, “and willfully ignoring the will of a majority of the people that we establish a broad national unity government together.

“Gantz intends to form a minority government dependent on the abstention of the Arab Joint List,” he said.

“I will make further efforts tomorrow with [Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor] Liberman to establish a national unity government, with the aim of preventing unnecessary elections or a dangerous minority government.”

Ahead of the meeting, Netanyahu had called on Gantz and Liberman to join him in forming a unity government, whose top item on the agenda on its first day would be the annexation of the Jordan Valley.

“The nation and history will not forgive whoever misses this historic opportunity,” Netanyahu said in a Hebrew-language video posted to Twitter, referring to a major policy shift Monday by the United States, which said it no longer viewed West Bank settlements as “inconsistent with international law.”

The face-to face talks between Netanyahu and Gantz were said to focus on a last-minute deal to form a government based on Rivlin’s unity proposal — which entails a power-sharing agreement whereby Netanyahu would take a leave of absence if indicted in three corruption cases and be replaced by Gantz as prime minister — subject to some changes.

The centrist leader was tasked with cobbling together a coalition last month after Netanyahu failed to do so in the wake of the September elections.

Negotiating teams of both parties had met Tuesday ahead of the leaders’ meeting.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Blue and White had wanted Netanyahu to commit to either forgo a request for immunity from prosecution from the Knesset, or to agree to take a leave of absence if indicted — even if he received immunity.

Blue and White wanted Netanyahu to take the leave of absence six to eight months after any announcement by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that he intends to indict the Likud leader, the report said.

Mandelblit is expected to announce by early next week whether he’ll charge Netanyahu in three corruption cases.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting at Neve Ilan west of Jerusalem, September 22, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Quoting sources close to the coalition negotiations, the Kan public broadcaster said the Likud-Blue and White talks were being brokered by Liberman.

Gantz has met with Liberman several times over the past weeks, with the parties saying they had made significant headway on issues such as religion and state. But Netanyahu also met with Liberman this week with relations between them reportedly warming, which has put Blue and White on alert fearing the two might band together to form a right-wing government.

After the negotiating teams held discussions, Gantz and party No. 2 Yair Lapid met at Blue and White headquarters in Tel Aviv ahead of the talks between Gantz and Liberman and, then, between Gantz and Netanyahu, party sources told the Times of Israel.

There were reportedly disagreements within Blue and White’s leadership regarding a compromise on the campaign pledge not to join any government under Netanyahu so long as he is suspected of criminal wrongdoing. The Ynet website reported Tuesday that  Lapid could decide not to join such a government, which could tear the centrist party apart.

Meanwhile, the head of the center-left Labor-Gesher party reiterated that he would not sit in a government under Netanyahu.

Chairman of the Labor-Gesher party Amir Peretz speaks at a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 28, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We promised Israeli citizens change and hope, and therefore we won’t sit in any government that Netanyahu heads,” Amir Peretz tweeted.

Labor-Gesher has also been holding coalition negotiations with Blue and White, with the parties saying earlier this week that “significant progress” had been made toward agreement on key issues in a potential government.

Should Gantz fail to form a coalition by Wednesday at midnight, Knesset members have a further 21 days to choose another MK to be given the mandate to form a government, or decide to head back to elections — the third in less than a year.

Though Gantz has no realistic path to forming a majority coalition without Likud, he could theoretically form a minority government, provided Liberman came on board, with the external backing of the predominantly Arab Joint List.

However, the odds of Liberman doing so appeared slim.

Netanyahu and Gantz have traded barbs in recent days over the prospect of a Joint List-backed minority government, which the Blue and White leader has neither endorsed nor ruled out.

On Sunday evening, Netanyahu’s Likud party organized an “emergency rally” that was aimed aimed at “stopping the dangerous minority government that is reliant on terror supporters.” There, the premier accused members of the Joint List of seeking to “destroy the country.” He claimed, without proof, that the Arab MKs support the Gaza terror organizations that Israel fought against last week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) at a meeting of the 55-member union of his Likud party and other right-wing and religious parties, in the Knesset, November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The two main sticking points in efforts to reach a unity government have been the right-wing bloc, which Netanyahu has refused to part with, and Blue and White’s refusal to serve under a prime minister facing criminal charges.

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu and Liberman met for the second time this week. The meeting was “positive and substantive and the two will continue in their efforts to form a unity government,” Likud and Yisrael Beytenu said in a joint statement.

Speaking after meeting with Gantz earlier Tuesday, Liberman said, “If by noon on Wednesday we have not reached an agreement then as far as I am concerned we have failed [at forming a unity government] and it’ll be every man for himself.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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