Hebrew-language media was rife with speculation late Tuesday on potential deals being offered during negotiations held between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White in a bid to reach a unity government.
Teams from both parties held a 90 minute meeting earlier in a long-shot effort to solve the political deadlock in the wake of last week’s national elections.
After midnight Tuesday, the Central Election Committee amended the results, giving Likud an extra seat at the expense of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism. The change gives Likud 32 seats, while UTJ drops from eight seats to seven.
Despite the extra seat, Likud remains a seat behind Blue and White, and the new tally does not shift the balance of power between the rival blocs headed by Netanyahu and Gantz. Netanyahu has been endorsed as preferred prime minister by 55 MKs, including from his own party and UTJ, which signed a pact together with Shas and Yamina agreeing to enter coalition negotiations as a bloc. Gantz has the backing of 54 MKs, including from his own party, center-left allies, and much of the Joint List alliance of Arab-dominated parties.
Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to enter talks on a possible unity government following a meeting hosted by President Reuven Rivlin on Monday evening. Rivlin has invited the two leaders — both of whom are seeking the premiership — to return to the President’s Residence for dinner on Wednesday. Rivlin has until October 2 to charge one of them with the task of building a majority coalition.
Channel 13 reported that one of Netanyahu’s suggestions has been for the incumbent premier to go first in a rotation, but with Gantz getting more time at the helm in return — up to three of the next four years.
The Ynet website reported that the sides have agreed that whoever is prime minister first will give up control of two of three senior portfolios: Foreign Affairs, Treasury or Defense.
Meanwhile, the Walla website reported that Likud suggested that the 55-strong right-wing religious bloc (Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina) get half the portfolios, while Blue and White, which has 33, gets the other half.
Netanyahu insists he is negotiating on behalf of the entire bloc, while Gantz says he is only dealing with Likud.
The Kan public broadcaster, meanwhile, reported that Likud sources believe Gantz is open to serving under Netanyahu in a rotation deal, despite all his promises to the contrary. Gantz denied the report.
Kan also listed purported Blue and White secularist demands from Likud, including public transportation on Shabbat; civil marriage; canceling a law limiting municipalities’ option to open grocery stores on Shabbat; passing a contentious law regulating the draft of ultra-Orthodox seminary students to the military; and approving a compromise deal regarding a pluralistic plaza at the Western Wall.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin headed Likud’s negotiating team in Tuesday’s meeting with Blue and White’s Yoram Turbowicz, a former aide to prime minister Ehud Olmert.
An hour after talks ended, Blue and White and Likud released a joint statement shining a light on a main bone of contention: whom Levin is representing.
“Yoram Turbowicz wanted to emphasize that for him, Minister Levin represented the prime minister and Likud, while Minister Levin emphasized that he represented all 55 members of the right-wing bloc,” the statement read.
According to the statement, the sit-down “dealt with the issues and held in good spirits.”
“The two agreed they would update the prime minister and the chairman of Blue and White regarding the meeting’s content, and then decide on next steps,” it read.
Netanyahu last week had the Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties sign an agreement with his Likud party to negotiate as a group, after elections that saw the right-wing and religious parties fail to garner enough support to form a coalition on their own. Gantz and his center-left partners also fell short of the needed 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset, leaving the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party in the kingmaker position with eight seats.
The prime minister on Monday met for the first time with Gantz, at Rivlin’s residence, and agreed to begin talks aimed toward building a unity coalition.
Netanyahu has assured his religious right-wing political partners that he will stick to his pact to negotiate as a bloc with them. At the same time, Gantz has told his party members that he will not abandon his promise to the voters not to let Netanyahu remain prime minister, in an indication that the political gridlock that has left Israel without a government for months could persist.
Rivlin invited Gantz and Netanyahu for a private dinner on Wednesday, after meeting with the two men on Monday.
Gantz has insisted that he head any unity government and ruled out sitting with Netanyahu due to his pending indictment on graft charges. In the final weeks of the election campaign, Gantz also vowed to form a “secular” government and rejected partnering with Shas and UTJ.
After Monday’s meeting, Blue and White said Gantz had told Netanyahu unity was not possible unless he stepped down as prime minister.
Netanyahu and Gantz met Monday for over two hours at the President’s Residence, first with Rivlin and then alone, with talks reportedly centering around who would head a possible joint government. Rivlin returned to speak with two again before the meeting ended.
As Gantz and Netanyahu met alone, Rivlin’s office said he had told Netanyahu and Gantz that Israelis do not want another election and the onus was on them to overcome the gridlock.
“The responsibility for establishing a government falls on you, and the people expect you to find a solution and to prevent further elections, even if it comes at a personal and even ideological cost. This is not the time to rule people out,” he said.
Rivlin told Gantz and Netanyahu that as neither had secured a majority of recommendations to form the next government, he had greater leeway in whom he would task to do so. His decision on who the potential next prime minister will be must come by October 2.