Rival sides to meet again on Sunday

4-hour talks between Likud, Blue and White end with no progress, blame-trading

Officials in Netanyahu’s party say whoever trips up unity efforts will bring about new elections; Blue and White says it is Likud that appears intent on a third national vote

Ministers Yariv Levin (L) and Ze'ev Elkin of Likud speak to the media ahead of negotiations with the Blue and White party, September 27, 2019 (video screenshot)
Ministers Yariv Levin (L) and Ze'ev Elkin of Likud speak to the media ahead of negotiations with the Blue and White party, September 27, 2019 (video screenshot)

Negotiating teams for Likud and Blue and White met Friday morning for ongoing talks over a potential unity government between the two parties, but made little headway, with each side appearing chiefly concerned with avoiding any blame for a collapse of negotiations.

Ahead of the talks, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin of Likud, who is leading the party’s negotiating team alongside Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, said: “If we are not successful in this process, whoever thwarts it will be taking the country to [a third] election.”

Elkin said it was “very clear” that the public wanted a unity government. But he also refused to back down from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge that Likud would only form a government with a bloc of 55 seats, headed by Netanyahu, that includes the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties. “None of the 55 will remain outside,” he said.

Levin said Likud was open to a compromise power-sharing deal with Blue and White suggested by President Reuven Rivlin to end the political deadlock, and “I sincerely hope we also find readiness for this with Blue and White.”

Rivlin on Wednesday proposed a unity government in which power would be equally divided and Netanyahu and Blue and White chief Benny Gantz would each serve two years as prime minister. Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if and when he is indicted in three criminal probes. Under the arrangement Gantz. as “interim prime minister,” would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

At the end of Friday’s meeting, which lasted over four hours, Likud said in a statement that “Most of the meeting dealt with the president’s plan, but Blue and White’s representatives did not say at the end whether they accepted it.”

For its part, Blue and White said in a statement that it was concerned with “principles and values” as “the foundation of any negotiation” while Likud was chiefly concerned with Netanyahu’s remaining prime minister.

The party said it was clear Likud’s stance was “aimed at dragging the State of Israel into a third round of elections, in line with the interests of the prime minister.”

Despite the tense mood, the sides agreed to meet again on Sunday morning.

Though negotiations continued Friday, the parties looked no closer to bridging the disagreements between them, as was made clear Thursday evening in comments by both Netanyahu and Gantz.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech in Tel Aviv to members of his Likud party on September 18, 2019, after elections for the 22nd Knesset. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Speaking at a Likud event in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu urged Gantz to “show leadership,” and join a Likud-led alliance of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties. He called Blue and White’s demand that his party ditch him over his criminal probes a “hallucination” and said Likud’s partnership with the right-wing and religious parties would not be broken.

“Benny, the ball is in your court,” he said, “I know you have all sorts of advisers telling you various things, but sometimes the right thing to do is also the simple thing. Stand up, show leadership, and come to a unity government.”

Netanyahu on Wednesday was tasked with forming a government, based on the strength of his pact with Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism, to negotiate as a bloc. However, without enough seats for a governing coalition, he is widely expected to return the mandate to Rivlin, leading to speculation that a third round of elections may be in the offing as political deadlock persists.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the press in Tel Aviv on September 26, 2019. (Avshalom Shoshoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s speech came just hours after Gantz issued a similar call for Netanyahu and his Likud party to begin talks on forming a unity government, but one led by Gantz and his party.

At a Blue and White faction meeting in Tel Aviv Thursday, Gantz said the focus of coalition talks should be not on doling out ministerial portfolios but on the next government’s policies.

“I am not looking to be prime minister for the sake of the honors. I asked for the public’s trust to carry out a mission,” he said.

Gantz added that his faction had no personal animus toward Netanyahu, but said its refusal to partner with Likud so long as Netanyahu was the party’s leader was due to the pending indictments the prime minister faces in a series of graft investigations.

“We want integrity in public life,” Gantz said. “We want to act against corruption and can’t sit with a prime minister against whom there are active indictments.”

After Netanyahu failed to piece together a coalition following the April 9 election, he forced a new vote to avoid letting Gantz have a chance at forming the government. The second election was held on September 17, but voters delivered an even more deadlocked result.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L), President Reuven Rivlin (C) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meet at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Gantz’s Blue and White won 33 seats, ahead of Likud’s 32 out of a total 120 seats in the Knesset. Neither has a clear path to a majority coalition.

After the two leaders failed to agree on a unity government in meetings convened by Rivlin earlier this week, the president on Wednesday gave Netanyahu the first chance to cobble together a coalition.

Netanyahu now has 28 days to form a government, with a possible two-week extension. If the attempt fails, Rivlin can then assign the task to another MK.

Rivling stressed Wednesday that Israelis do not want a third round of elections, saying “the public will pay the price” of a failure by Netanyahu and Gantz to find common ground.

Netanyahu is facing indictments, pending a hearing next week, in three corruption cases, one of which includes a count of bribery. He denies all the charges.

On Thursday, Netanyahu urged Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to allow his pre-indictment hearing to be broadcast live, but Mandelblit rejected the “unprecedented” suggestion, labeling it a media stunt.

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