Netanyahu, Gantz agree to press ahead with unity talks after holiday

After trading blame for breakdown in negotiations, Likud leader phones Blue and White counterpart to wish him a ‘Happy Passover’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid a breakdown in unity government talks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz on Wednesday afternoon, and the two wished each other a “Happy Passover!”

“The two spoke about the need for a national emergency government for the good of the nation at this time and agreed to continue discussions following the holiday period,” according to a joint statement from their offices hours after the sides traded blame over the latest blowup in negotiations.

The Passover holiday starts Wednesday evening and continues for a week, although the talks were expected to resume on Thursday evening after the end of the first day of the festival.

In a Facebook post earlier Wednesday, Gantz claimed the sides had nearly reached a coalition agreement when Likud sought to change an understanding reached on judicial appointments.

“We informed them that we want a national emergency government, but not at any cost,” Gantz wrote.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

However, Likud said in a statement that it was Gantz who backed away from the agreements between the parties to form an “equal unity government.”

“From the first moment, it was agreed that the unity government would stand on two clear lines — joint decision-making on all issues and promoting the application of sovereignty [over the West Bank]. Unfortunately, at the last minute, Blue and White reversed on these agreements, which are a necessary basis for any equal unity government.

“The moment that Blue and White returns to the agreements it will be possible to complete the deal. Spin doesn’t bring unity closer but rather distances it,” Likud said.

Netanyahu told Radio 103FM that he is determined to establish an emergency unity government but annexation of parts of the West Bank was key for him.

A report on Channel 12 on Wednesday indicated that Netanyahu may have torpedoed the talks after polling showed his Likud party easily winning a possible fourth round of elections.

According to a Maariv newspaper poll published Wednesday, Likud would win 42 seats with Blue and White receiving just 18 mandates in a possible fourth election. The third largest party would be the Joint List with 16 seats and then Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid taking 9 seats.

The poll gave 64 seats to the right-wing bloc, a clear majority.

Having previously indicated a deal on an emergency unity government was done, the Blue and White party on Monday evening said it was breaking off coalition talks with Likud.

The announcement came soon after reports said the parties had reached understandings on the final thorny negotiation issues, including the potential annexation of parts of the West Bank under the US peace proposal and power over the justice system.

The earlier reports indicated Gantz’s party had given way on its demands vis-à-vis annexation, while Likud ceded ground on judicial issues.

On the matter of annexation, the sides decided that the government will act with the full agreement of the US and in talks with the international community, while preserving strategic interests and peace deals, an official with knowledge of the talk told The Times of Israel.

Netanyahu’s party was previously said to have demanded veto rights in the judicial appointments committee, or that decisions only pass with a majority of eight out of nine members. Those demands were then shelved — with the parties agreeing that any decisions be made in agreement — before Likud was reported to have gone back on the matter, leading negotiations to stall.

Meanwhile, Likud had also reportedly agreed to Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn being appointed justice minister despite early misgivings.

The parties agreed that Gantz will serve as defense minister before the scheduled rotation; Likud’s Yariv Levin will be the next Knesset speaker; Blue and White can choose between the foreign and education ministries, earmarked for Gabi Ashkenazi; the government will have 30 ministers before expanding to 34 after the COVID-19 crisis is over; and an expanded “Norwegian Law” will be passed, allowing for more members of Gantz’s party to enter the Knesset in place of ministers, who will resign their Knesset posts.

Among Netanyahu’s right-wing religious partners, the national religious Yamina party fumed over the reported details of agreements on judicial issues, also accusing him of having “surrendered.”

A Yamina official told The Times of Israel on Monday that the party is gearing to head to the opposition due to what they view as Netanyahu’s willingness to cede to too many of Gantz’s demands.

The negotiations on forming a government, which would see Netanyahu and Gantz switch off as prime minister, had gathered pace since the Blue and White leader was elected Knesset speaker on March 26. The move signaled Gantz’s readiness to partner Netanyahu in a breach of his and his Blue and White party’s campaign promises, and led to the collapse of his centrist alliance and a breach with former allies Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Moshe Ya’alon (Telem).

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