Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Resilience party chief Benny Gantz wrapped up an all-night meeting early Sunday on the terms of a unity government, which they were hoping to finalize later in the day.
A joint statement from the two said they reached “understandings and significant progress” during the talks at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, without elaborating.
Further talks will be held later Sunday with the aim of reaching a signed deal, according to the statement.
Israel Resilience MK Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz’s deputy, also took part in the overnight meeting.
Despite the statement, political sources said two more meetings may be necessary to reach a final deal and that the sides were still working on divvying up ministerial portfolios such as the Justice Ministry.
“We’re on the way to a unity government; we will join forces for you, for our country,” Netanyahu said in a video released ahead of the meeting.
Blue and White MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, who joined Blue and White’s Yesh Atid faction ahead of the 2013 elections, on Sunday announced she was jumping ship and joining Gantz.
“I decided to stay in Blue and White as part of Israel Resilience and give full backing to party leader Benny Gantz, in the unity government soon to be established,” she said. “Gantz is a leader who put Israel before everything — it’s not just a slogan but a fact. I believe that while this is complicated is due to the coronavirus and political crises, and the rifts in society, the public interest is for a unity government that will function optimally in the face of the challenges we face for Israel.”
On Saturday, Channel 12 reported that Blue and White MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel were also planning to join Gantz in the government, in a boost to Netanyahu’s agenda.
According to the report, should the rightist lawmakers break off from their Telem faction within Blue and White and join a coalition, the government would have a majority of lawmakers with right-wing views. This means, according to the report, that if Netanyahu seeks to advance annexation or other steps after the pandemic ends, Gantz would not be able to prevent it or break up the coalition.
The unity talks came after Gantz in a shock move was elected Knesset speaker Thursday, leading to the dissolution of the Blue and White alliance, which had campaigned during the three elections over the past year on not joining a government led by Netanyahu due to his indictment on graft charges.
Members of Israel Resilience have said the only alternative to joining a Netanyahu-led coalition was a fourth round of elections and that a government is needed to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
According to the emerging deal, Gantz is set to partner with Netanyahu in a coalition and serve initially as foreign or defense minister before taking over as prime minister in September 2021. Many political analysts doubt that such a rotation will actually take place. (Ashkenazi is set to take whichever of the defense or foreign posts Gantz doesn’t choose.)
Likud, headed by Netanyahu, has reportedly made clear that it will not give up the Health Ministry, currently headed by Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism, a key Likud ally, or the Knesset speaker role, which Gantz is expected to resign once a government is formed, Channel 12 news reported.
As part of the negotiations, Netanyahu is seeking legislation saying that an acting prime minister under indictment can continue to serve, in order to ensure he can fill that role when his prime ministerial rotation with Gantz is slated to go into effect. Currently, ministers must resign if they face criminal charges, but the law does not explicitly refer to a prime minister.
Following Gantz’s election Thursday as Knesset speaker, the Yesh Atid and Telem factions, which made up the Blue and White alliance along with Gantz’s party, filed a formal request to break away, leaving only Gantz’s Israel Resilience to join forces with Netanyahu’s Likud-led bloc.
Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, leader of Telem, have categorically rejected entering a unity government with Likud as long as it is headed by Netanyahu. Both now-former partners have harshly criticized Gantz, the former leader of their alliance, with Lapid excoriating him during a press conference with Ya’alon on Thursday for “crawling” into a coalition of “extremists and extortionists.”
Lapid said the former army chief had betrayed Blue and White’s voters, stolen their votes and handed them to Netanyahu. Despite his claims, Gantz was not entering a unity government, but had simply “surrendered” to Netanyahu, Lapid said.
Gantz has said he was “at peace” with his decision “because I did what my nation needs.”
“These are unusual times. Israel is in a state of emergency. Hundreds of thousands of families are hunkering down in their homes. There is a real sense of emergency in the face of a health threat that is taking human life and in the face the threat of economic devastation,” Gantz wrote on Facebook.
Speaking in a Channel 12 interview on Saturday, Lapid criticized Gantz further, asking why, if Gantz was so concerned about the coronavirus crisis, he had not asked for an Israel Resilience MK to head the Health Ministry as part of a unity agreement.
Lapid said he did not understand why Gantz had not been pushing to head a unity government himself, given that his bloc had 61 seats following the most recent round of elections on March 2.
Lapid indicated he did not regret forging the Blue and White alliance with Gantz, only the end result.
Gantz was handed the mandate to form a government earlier this month after three rounds of seemingly inconclusive elections, but appeared to have no clear path to forging a stable coalition. Both he and Netanyahu, who has run Israel for over a decade but is facing criminal charges, had publicly touted the need for a national emergency unity government in light of the coronavirus crisis, but neither had appeared to make any meaningful steps toward that goal before a Wednesday phone call between the two.
The Blue and White party came together in 2019, formed of three constituent parts: Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which provided much of the party’s infrastructure having already run in several elections, and Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Ya’alon’s Telem, which were newcomers on Israel’s political scene.