No progress on unity as Netanyahu-Gantz meeting breaks up after 45 minutes

Likud and Blue and White blame each other for stalemate with eight days to go to reach a coalition deal before new elections are called for 3rd time in a year

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)
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)

A meeting between Blue and White chief Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Tuesday lasted only 45 minutes, as the sides apparently failed to make progress on an elusive unity deal.

Both sides swiftly blamed each other for the impasse and said they were leading the country toward new elections.

The sit-down at the Kirya Defense Ministry headquarters came eight days before the final deadline for the Knesset to tap a candidate to form a government. If no lawmaker manages to get the support of at least 61 members of the 120-strong Knesset by December 11, elections will be called for the third time in less than a year.

Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz has so far been able to form a government, even though both have publicly said they want to avoid a third vote. Two rounds of elections, in April and September, failed to produce an elected government — a first in Israeli political history.

Minutes after the meeting ended, Netanyahu’s Likud party attacked Blue and White for failing to accept its “far-reaching concessions.”

“The prime minister offered to creatively anchor in law the [premiership] rotation. In the face of far-reaching concessions, Blue and White continues to refuse to form a unity government over the veto imposed by [Blue and White No. 2 Yair] Lapid,” Netanyahu’s party said.

“So Lapid is dragging us to elections in order to ensure that Netanyahu remains in power,” the statement read.

Reports in recent days have indicated that Likud is seeking a unity deal that would leave Netanyahu as prime minister for six months, after which Gantz would take over. Blue and White has reportedly expressed worries that Netanyahu will renege after using the time to gain immunity from criminal charges hanging over his head.

Blue and White, meanwhile, accused Netanyahu of failing to bring anything new to the table.

“The Likud chairman brought no offer that matches his legal situation or recognizes that he lost the elections, or any new offer at all. In the meeting, he refused to commit to the basic guidelines for the government or to not seek personal immunity.”

“In short, Netanyahu chose elections,” the party added.

Blue and White also said that it would continue pursuing unity talks.

After the meeting, Netanyahu summoned senior Likud members for an “urgent” meeting at the Kirya. He earlier insisted to Likud activists that a unity deal was “still possible,” and said he would spare no effort to assemble a unity government.

A report earlier Tuesday suggested the sides were nearing a compromise agreement that would give Netanyahu the first stab at the premiership, but would limit his term to six months, after which Gantz would take over as premier for the next two years. The deal would give Blue and White control of the powerful defense and foreign affairs portfolios, while Likud would lead on the domestic and legislative front.

Speaking Monday at a Blue and White faction meeting, Gantz reiterated that he was prepared to enter a unity government, but only if he serves as prime minister first. The centrist alliance has ruled out joining a government led by Netanyahu, who faces criminal charges in three cases, including bribery in one of them.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting in the Knesset on December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman on Monday appeared to backtrack on his previous suggestion that he could endorse both of them as candidates to form a government as part of an eleventh-hour bid to force a unity government.

Liberman said the offer only stood if there was a genuine will to form a government merging Likud and Blue and White, and threatened that otherwise he wouldn’t back either politician.

Liberman — who refused to join a Netanyahu government in May over disagreements with ultra-Orthodox parties on the military draft law of ultra-Orthodox students — has been pushing for a secularist unity government of Likud, Blue and White, and Yisrael Beytenu.

On Tuesday, two members of his party made a public plea for Liberman to hitch his wagon to Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc rather than go to elections.

Last week, Liberman said that had Netanyahu been willing to compromise on religion and state issues, he would have joined a right-wing government alongside the religious parties.

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