Likud refuses to exclude religious slates in its talks with Blue and White
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Likud refuses to exclude religious slates in its talks with Blue and White

Walking into negotiations with Gantz’s representatives, Yariv Levin insists he represents 55-member bloc of right-wing parties led by Likud

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Blue and White coalition negotiators Yoram Turbowicz (L) and Shalom Shlomo (second from R) along with Likud's negotiators Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (second from L) and Michael Rabello (R) meet in Kfar Maccabiah on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malkah)
Blue and White coalition negotiators Yoram Turbowicz (L) and Shalom Shlomo (second from R) along with Likud's negotiators Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (second from L) and Michael Rabello (R) meet in Kfar Maccabiah on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malkah)

The first meeting between Likud and Blue and White negotiators since Benny Gantz was tasked with forming a coalition last week ended Sunday with representatives of  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refusing to budge on their insistence that they would only join a government along with the rest of the members of their right-wing religious bloc.

Blue and White said in a statement after the sit-down of under two hours in Kfar Maccabiah that the meeting was held in “good spirits” but that Likud “continued to insist that it represents the 55-member… bloc and is not prepared for any compromise on the issue.”

In a statement of his own upon entering the meeting, the leader of Likud’s negotiating team, Yariv Levin, said, “We are arriving at today’s negotiators’ meeting at the invitation of Blue and White, representing the entire 55-member right-wing bloc.”

A day after last month’s elections, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties along with Likud and the Yamina slate (which has since broken up into New Right and Jewish Home-National Union) all agreed to enter coalition negotiations as a united front of 55 MKs.

While Blue and White has made clear that its primary interest is a unity government with Likud, the centrist alliance said last week that it wants to negotiate with parties individually. Gantz has reached out to the leaders of all parties, except for the hardline Balad faction (part of the Joint List), to schedule meetings in an effort to cobble together a coalition. However, Shas, UTJ, New Right and Jewish Home said they would allow the Likud negotiators led by Levin to speak on their behalf.

Blue and White coalition negotiators Yoram Turbowicz (second from L) and Shalom Shlomo (L) along with Likud’s negotiators Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (second from R) and Michael Rabello (R) meet in Kfar Maccabiah on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malkah)

In the lead-up to last month’s election, Blue and White leaders said they would seek to form a government without the Haredi and hardline religious parties.

Blue and White said that it had asked Likud negotiators to schedule follow-up meetings for the coming days.

Blue and White was being represented during the Sunday afternoon by Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Shlomo, while Levin and Michael Rabello were sent on behalf of Likud.

Levin said ahead of Sunday’s meeting that “there is no other way but a unity government based on the president’s outline.”

That unity government scheme proposed previously by President Reuven Rivlin would see power equally divided between Netanyahu and Gantz, who would each serve two years as prime minister. Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

But the idea of Gantz serving as prime minister only after Netanyahu has a turn is believed to be a nonstarter for Blue and White, which won one more seat in the election than did Likud.

In its statement after the meeting, Blue and White said it was seeking to establish a government “under the premise and understanding that the mandate is currently held by Blue and White chairman, Lt. Gen. (res.) MK Benny Gantz, thereby making him the appointed prime minister.”

President Reuven Rivlin (right) presents Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with the mandate to form a new government, after PM Netanyahu’s failure to form one, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on October 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We wanted to [reach such an agreement] when the mandate was in our hands, but we are willing to [reach] it even when the mandate is in Benny Gantz’s hands,” Levin said.

He said he intended to get a clear answers from Blue and White negotiators as to whether they would accept Rivlin’s proposal in addition to whether the talks with Likud were merely cover for their ostensible real intention: a minority government with outside support from the Joint List.

Blue and White has yet to publicly express interest in such an option, but Likud MKs have insisted that this is what Gantz has planned.

Gantz and Netanyahu were slated to meet face to face hours later at the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv following an invitation by the Blue and White leader.

Citing recent warnings by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Netanyahu earlier Sunday said the possibility of conflict necessitated the swift formation of a broad unity government to respond to security threats.

Netanyahu failed to negotiate a coalition following last month’s Knesset election, prompting Rivlin to tap his primary rival, Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, to try his hand at bringing together Israel’s disparate political factions.

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