Negotiating teams for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party continued their talks to form a unity government late Wednesday night and into Thursday, and agreed to meet again later Thursday, even as the latter’s presidential mandate to form a coalition expired at midnight.
The negotiations broke up for the night at around 2 a.m. Thursday with no deal but a joint statement promising a resumption of talks later in the day.
The deadline had been extended on Monday by 48 hours, after Gantz and Netanyahu made a joint request to President Reuven Rivlin, but no such request for extra time was made on Wednesday night.
Wednesday’s deadline was somewhat symbolic, as negotiations were able to continue regardless, but Gantz’s position is potentially weakened.
With Rivlin’s midnight deadline for Gantz passing, the president had said he would give the Knesset 21 days to nominate a candidate to become prime minister — which essentially gives Netanyahu and Gantz three more weeks to seal a deal, or theoretically opens the door to other coalition possibilities.
If no MK can muster that support of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 members, the country will be forced to go to a new election — its fourth in 16 months.
Blue and White sources told Channel 12 news Wednesday evening they feared Netanyahu was not interested in making a deal. A recent poll has shown Likud could win a clear majority if the country now goes to a fourth election. On the other hand, the battering that Israel’s economy is taking amid the coronavirus crisis means elections could take place in a very different atmosphere a few months from now, with August seen as the likely month for a fourth round.
Gantz is seeking a unity government with Likud that would see him and Netanyahu rotate the premiership, with the incumbent prime minister keeping the reins for the first 18 months.
A main point of contention between the sides in recent days was believed to be Likud’s desire to make changes to judicial appointment procedures to give it greater control over the process, and Blue and White’s stark opposition to this. This issue was reported to be largely resolved late Wednesday.
But another key issue was reportedly Netanyahu’s concern that the High Court of Justice may rule that he cannot be prime minister due to the criminal charges against him, a development which could leave Gantz as prime minister for the whole term of their coalition. Netanyahu has therefore reportedly been trying to engineer some kind of legislative guarantee that Gantz would not take over as prime minister in the event of such a court ruling.
After the mandate expired, Gantz reportedly told confidants he had no intention of hobbling the High Court.
“I did not come to negotiate an emergency national unity government to start dealing with the High Court, but to safeguard democracy” he said, according to the Ynet news site. “I’m not prepared to circumvent the court or embarrass it.”
The right-wing Netanyahu and centrist Gantz, a former army chief, have gone head-to-head in three stalemated elections over the past year. Following the most recent vote March 2, both men fell short of a majority and neither had a clear path toward a viable governing coalition.
With the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in more than 12,000 confirmed infections in Israel, there have been continued widespread calls for an interim emergency alliance.
A Netanyahu-Gantz deal would give the Jewish state its first stable government since December 2018 and offer a rare period of political calm amid a global health crisis that is taking a devastating economic toll.
Talks were held throughout Tuesday after Gantz and Netanyahu released a joint statement Monday night saying there had been “significant progress in talks to form an emergency unity government,” but were suspended Tuesday afternoon until Wednesday night for the end of the Passover holiday.
On Sunday, Rivlin had turned down an earlier request from Gantz for a 14-day extension to his mandate, which was not supported by Netanyahu.
There were no details Wednesday on what compromises had been made, but Channel 12 news reported that Netanyahu’s allies in the Yamina party were fuming over the agreements and were set to bolt to the opposition. Even without Yamina’s six seats, Netanyahu could easily build a coalition with Blue and White’s support.
Gantz is believed to have withdrawn from his previous demand for a right of veto on annexing West Bank settlements under the US peace plan, essentially clearing the way for it to take place if it is approved by Washington.
On March 15, Rivlin tasked Gantz with forming a government after he received the backing of a majority of lawmakers to be nominated with the job. He received the nomination with the backing of left-wing and Arab lawmakers, but then, late last month, proceeded to launch negotiations with Netanyahu and with right-wing backing was elected Knesset speaker, a move that saw his Blue and White alliance break up.
Gantz, in a televised address to the nation on Monday evening before his meeting with Netanyahu, had implored the premier to ink a coalition deal. He urged him to honor the terms of an agreement which he said was largely finalized by both sides last week. Netanyahu, who had earlier in the evening again called publicly for a unity government, then promptly invited Gantz to his residence for further talks, which culminated in the late-night announcement of significant headway.
Gantz is currently Knesset speaker with control over the parliamentary agenda. The threat looming over the coalition negotiations is that should Likud call off the talks, Gantz and his Blue and White MKs would rejoin the anti-Netanyahu bloc in passing legislation to prevent an indicted person — namely Netanyahu — from serving as premier.
Israeli law requires cabinet ministers facing criminal indictment to resign from their cabinet posts, but there is no such stipulation for a prime minister.
Netanyahu faces seven counts of three criminal charges: fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. He denies the allegations and says he is the victim of an attempted political coup by the opposition, police and state prosecutors. His trial is scheduled to begin next month, though it remains unclear whether it will open then, due to the pandemic.