Likud, Blue and White holding ‘serious’ talks amid efforts for last-minute deal

Likud, Blue and White holding ‘serious’ talks amid efforts for last-minute deal

Netanyahu, Gantz to hold crucial meeting at 10 p.m., with centrist party said looking for promises from PM on immunity, leave of absence

President Reuven Rivlin meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz were set to meet Tuesday evening, as multiple reports said the leaders were having serious negotiations for the first time since the September elections amid intense efforts to form a unity government.

The parties are reportedly discussing a last-minute deal to form a government based on President Reuven Rivlin’s unity proposal — which entails a power-sharing agreement whereby Netanyahu would take a leave of absence if indicted for corruption 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.

The negotiation teams of both parties met Tuesday ahead of the leaders’ meeting, which was scheduled for 10 p.m. — 26 hours before Gantz’s deadline to form a governing coalition.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Blue and White wants Netanyahu to commit to either forgoing a request for immunity from the Knesset, or to agree to take a leave of absence if he is indicted even if he receives immunity.

Netanyahu would have to take the leave of absence six to eight months after an announcement from 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 ad White talks are being brokered by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.

Gantz has met 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 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 team discussions, Gantz and party No. 2 Yair Lapid met at the 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.

Blue and White said Gantz would meet Liberman at 8 p.m., before his sit-down with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu and the Likud negotiation team were also expected to meet Rivlin Tuesday.

There were reportedly disagreements within Blue and White’s leadership regarding a compromise on the campaign pledge not to join a government under Netanyahu after charges are announced against him. The Ynet website reported Tuesday that  Lapid may 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.

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.

Liberman, who has been positioned as coalition kingmaker since the September elections, said Monday he would attempt to force a Likud-Blue and White government until Wednesday afternoon.

“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,” Liberman told reporters, seemingly leaving the door open for negotiations for a minority government during Blue and White’s final 12 hours to form a coalition before the midnight deadline later that day.

Jacob Magid  and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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