'We're on our way to a unity government' -- Netanyahu

Netanyahu, Gantz, Ashkenazi meet to iron out details of unity government deal

Telem MKs Hauser and Hendel reportedly plan to join coalition, giving PM leverage for right-wing agenda; premier said to seek legislation that acting PM can serve under indictment

A composite image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz at polling stations in Jerusalem and Rosh Haayin, respectively, during the Knesset Elections on March 2, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL, AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
A composite image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz at polling stations in Jerusalem and Rosh Haayin, respectively, during the Knesset Elections on March 2, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL, AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Resilience party head Benny Gantz, formerly of the Blue and White alliance, were meet Saturday night to iron out the details of their expected unity government deal. Also present was Blue and White No.4 Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz’s key ally in the move to partner with Netanyahu.

Several major disagreements between the two sides remain, according to reports in the Hebrew media, including who will preside over the Justice Ministry. Channel 12 reported earlier Saturday that, broadly speaking, the talks are making progress.

Netanyahu released a video on Saturday evening saying “we’re on our way to a unity government; we will join forces for you, for our country.” He indicated that a joint effort was needed to “defeat the coronavirus.”

According to the emerging deal based on a rotation agreement, Gantz is set to partner with Netanyahu in a unity 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.)

Blue and White MK and chairman of the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Gabi Ashkenazi, leads a committee discussion on the data of the Ultra Orthodox recruits to the army, in the Knesset, on December 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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, Channel 12 reported.

Gantz was elected Knesset speaker on Thursday after his shock decision to work toward a unity government with Netanyahu. He is expected to resign the speakership after a government is formed, to be replaced by a Likud MK, potentially even the previous Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, who resigned from the position on Wednesday in order to avoid having to carry out a Supreme Court order he disagreed with.

Benny Gantz delivers his maiden speech as Knesset speaker, March 26, 2020. (Knesset)

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.

Also Saturday, Channel 12 reported that Blue and White MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel were 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 the Telem faction within Blue and White and join a coalition, the government would have 61 lawmakers with right-wing views (the 58 in the Likud, Yamina, Shas, United Torah Judaism bloc, plus Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abekasis and the two Telem MKs). 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.

Knesset members Yoaz Hendel (L) and Zvi Hauser (R) seen at the Knesset , ahead of the opening session of the new government, on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The Yesh Atid and Telem factions which made up the Blue and White alliance with Gantz’s party have 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.

Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2020. (Elad Gutman/Blue and White)

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.

“This is the time for leaders to choose what is right and put the lingering issues and personal scores aside,” he said explaining his decision to backtrack on an election promise to never serve under Netanyahu, who is charged in three corruption cases.

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.

Gantz’s actions are akin to “running a marathon, being in the lead on the final lap, and a meter before the finish line, sitting on the ground and crying,” Lapid said. The pandemic “is no reason to abandon your values.”

Members of the Blue White political party Benny Gantz (L), Moshe Yaalon and Yair Lapid hold a press conference at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 10, 2019. (Flash90)

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.

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