Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz signed a coalition deal during a meeting Monday evening, bringing to an apparent end a nearly year-and-a-half-long political stalemate.
A joint statement from Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud party said the agreement was to form a “national emergency government,” apparently to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
“We prevented fourth elections. We’ll safeguard democracy,” Gantz tweeted shortly after the announcement was made. “We’ll fight the coronavirus and look out for all Israeli citizens. We have a national emergency government.”
Netanyahu spoke with all the leaders of his right-wing religious bloc of parties after signing the unity deal, his spokesman said in a statement.
“The prime minister said that the establishment of a unity government in the face of the coronavirus pandemic is a national imperative,” the statement said. “The prime minister pledged that he will continue to uphold the principles of the national camp and the right-wing bloc within the unity government.”
The deal is expected to be signed formally after Independence Day next week, after which the other right-wing parties would sign on to it. The emerging coalition is then expected to move forward with legislation to cement the premiership rotation agreement that will see Gantz take over from Netanyahu as prime minister after 18 months.
The final agreement dovetails with most of Netanyahu’s demands, including on the the annexation of parts of the West Bank, a process that it says can begin in July 2020.
The cabinet will include 32 ministers at first and then swell to 36, with 16 deputy ministers, as soon as the coronavirus crisis is deemed to have ended, in what will be the largest cabinet by far in Israel’s history.
Gantz will serve as defense minister in the year and a half he waits in the wings to take over as premier, while Blue and White No. 2 Gabi Ashkenazi will be foreign minister. Among other key ministries, Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn was to receive the Justice Ministry, while Likud would get the finance and public security ministries, as well as the position of Knesset speaker.
As recently as Monday morning, when Gantz and Netanyahu last met, reports indicated the coalition talks had stalled.
The main bone of contention seemed to be the makeup and mechanics of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which installs judges, with Netanyahu — who has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption, including bribery — demanding veto power over nominations.
Under the agreement reached Monday night, Likud ensured right-wing veto power on the panel, with the appointment of Blue and White’s MK Zvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary under Netanyahu.
That clause was immediately castigated by Gantz’s former ally Yair Lapid, the Yesh Atid-Telem leader.
“So the compromise on the Judicial Appointments Committee is that Bibi [Netanyahu] chose all its representatives. Gantz and [Blue and White MK Gabi] Ashkenazi agreed to allow the criminal defendant to appoint the judges that will adjudicate his affairs,” tweeted Lapid.
Though a right-wing conservative who is unlikely to back judicial activism, Hauser has also been critical of attacks on the courts and is considered by Gantz and his allies to be a defender of the judiciary’s independence.
Meanwhile Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn is set to be appointed justice minister, replacing the firebrand Amir Ohana of Likud who had made a habit of attacking the courts and the state prosecution.
Yesh Atid-Telem ran as part of the Blue and White alliance in all three elections over the past year, before breaking with Gantz over his appointment as Knesset speaker with the backing of Netanyahu’s political allies, the March 26 move that marked the advent of the coalition talks.
As Knesset speaker, Gantz had threatened to advance legislation earlier Monday that would disqualify Netanyahu from continuing to serve as prime minister due to his upcoming corruption trial, a move that Likud had warned would sink the prospects of an agreement for good.
Besides Likud’s demands concerning the Judicial Appointments Committee, another key issue was Netanyahu’s concern that the High Court may rule that he cannot serve as prime minister due to the criminal charges against him, a development that could theoretically leave Gantz as premier for the entire term of the joint coalition.
Netanyahu had therefore 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. According to the agreement, there will be no such legislation in the first six months of the coalition’s lifespan, when such a ruling would be most likely to be issued; instead, if Netanyahu is disqualified, new elections would be called.
Netanyahu is also believed to be looking at recent favorable polling that shows him with a comfortable majority if an election were held today — though public opinion could rapidly sway in the coming months, depending on developments on the coronavirus front and the government’s handling of it.
The signing of the agreement came after President Reuven Rivlin informed Gantz last week that his mandate to form a government had ended, after he failed to present a coalition to the Knesset by Wednesday’s midnight deadline.
That triggered the start of a 21-day period during which the Knesset as a whole may select a candidate with majority support to form a government. The move was widely seen as an attempt to force Netanyahu and Gantz to stop dithering and seal a unity deal quickly amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Israel has been led by a caretaker government since December 2018, when the 20th Knesset dissolved. Since then, three consecutive elections have failed to yield a new government, creating an unprecedented political crisis.