Netanyahu and Gantz discuss unity government, plan fresh talks
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Netanyahu and Gantz discuss unity government, plan fresh talks

Conversation comes as rare sign of possible progress in negotiations for emergency government, after sides hitherto talked up unity but failed to actually move toward it

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

This composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief, Benny Gantz, right, speaking separately at a media conference in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Hadash Parush/Flash90)
This composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief, Benny Gantz, right, speaking separately at a media conference in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Hadash Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz discussed the possibility of setting up an emergency government to tackle the coronavirus Wednesday, taking a rare step toward a much-touted unity coalition.

The two spoke by phone and agreed negotiators from their respective parties would resume coalition talks on Thursday, according to Blue and White.

“Against the backdrop of the escalating coronavirus and the president’s appeal [for unity], the two instructed their teams to return to the negotiating table tomorrow in order to examine the possible formation of a national emergency government,” both parties said in identical statements.

Even though Netanyahu and Gantz have talked up the option of unity for the last two weeks, negotiations between their parties have failed to move forward.

Gantz was tasked on March 16 with forming a government after 61 lawmakers backed him as prime minister, and given 28 days to do so.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz with forming a government in a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

The talks came amid an unprecedented political rift as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of Likud refused to make way for a replacement from the rival camp, ignoring a High Court court order to hold a vote and thrusting the parliament into a constitutional crisis.

Despite having the backing of 61 MKs as prime minister, Gantz is stuck with no straightforward path to a government, with members of his party objecting to cooperating with the Arab-led Joint List, even in a minority government. His Blue and White party ruled out the option Tuesday, according to several Hebrew media reports.

Blue and White doesn’t have any alternative options for a government, since all the other parties in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc are refusing to break their loyalty to the premier by even holding negotiations on the matter.

The centrist party has publicly vowed not to join a government headed by Netanyahu, though it has said it could serve alongside another Likud chairman should Netanyahu, who is facing criminal charges, step aside. But Likud leaders have rallied behind Netanyahu despite the grave allegations against him.

Blue and White has also expressed opposition to joining an “emergency government” with Likud just to battle the pandemic, believing it would be sidelined in such a coalition and preferring instead to let Netanyahu handle the crisis alone, for better or worse.

In recent days, Likud and Blue and White have clashed over the latter’s bid to call a Knesset vote to replace Edelstein as parliament speaker. Likud had warned that if Edelstein is replaced, that would be the end of unity talks.

On Wednesday morning Edelstein resigned as speaker rather than call the vote on his own replacement, as ordered by the High Court on Monday.

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. At left is Benny Gantz. Center, with back to camera, is Benjamin Netanyahu (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

But the sides have also seemingly signaled the possibility that they could unify.

On Wednesday, Channel 13 news reported that Likud had agreed to give up its hold on the Justice Ministry, allowing Blue and White to appoint MK Chili Tropper in case of a unity deal.

Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic was a crucial time in which leadership and national responsibility had to be exercised, claiming the disagreements between the rivals regarding the specifics of a unity government are small and can be overcome.

“The citizens of Israel need a unity government that would act to save their lives and livelihoods,” he said, addressing Gantz. “This isn’t time for fourth elections. Let’s meet now and form a government today. I am waiting for you.”

He repeated the plea on Wednesday, tweeting that “we need to put this to the side. We are one nation and one people and the order of the day is unity. I am calling for an immediate national unity government to deal with the crisis.”

After seeming to soften his position in recent days, Gantz said Tuesday he was demanding to go first as prime minister in a rotating premiership deal.

“I have an expectation and a demand for a unity government headed by me,” Gantz told activists from his party who had demonstrated outside his house, calling on him to form a unity coalition rather than a minority government propped up by the Joint List.

“There is some expectation to join [a unity government] under Netanyahu, as if that is the only alternative,” Gantz added. “I have overseen wars. We know how to handle national crises as well as they do.”

After gaining control over the Arrangements Committee, which determines which parliamentary committees will be formed and who will sit on them during a transitional government, the center-left bloc has formed six special parliamentary committees, including one to oversee Israel’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Likud’s bloc boycotted all the votes on establishing those committees.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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