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Gantz: Will keep working 'toward unity and reconciliation'

PM, Gantz suspend talks for holiday, will meet again Wednesday ahead of deadline

Teams negotiating national unity government will take discussions to the wire after president gives Blue and White chair until midnight Wednesday to finalize an agreement

An election poster hung by the Blue and White party shows their candidate Benny Gantz and Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu on February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An election poster hung by the Blue and White party shows their candidate Benny Gantz and Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu on February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz suspended talks on forming a unity government for the last day of Passover holiday that starts Tuesday evening, promising to continue on Wednesday evening just hours before a deadline to ink a deal.

After talks throughout the day Tuesday, Blue and White and Likud issued a joint statement saying that Netanyahu and Gantz, and their teams, would “meet again after the holiday with the aim of reaching an agreement on establishing a national emergency government.”

The statement gave no details on the talks and with the holiday ending Wednesday evening, that would give them just a few hours before Gantz’s mandate expires at midnight, after already receiving a 48-hour extension from President Reuven Rivlin.

“I promise to to keep taking the right decisions for Israel’s citizens and to work toward unity and reconciliation for the nation,” Gantz said after the talks without giving a further indication of where they stand.

The two met late Monday at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, where they asked Rivlin to extend Gantz’s mandate to assemble a government, which expired at midnight.

The president granted the request, giving Gantz until Wednesday midnight to finalize a deal. A statement from the President’s Residence said he agreed to do so “on the understanding that they are very close to reaching an agreement between them.”

Rivlin on Sunday had turned down a request from Gantz for a 14-day extension, which was not supported by Netanyahu. The President’s Residence said at the time that Netanyahu confirmed to Rivlin the sides were not close to signing an agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (R) as President Reuven Rivlin looks on, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on September 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Following their late-night Monday meeting, Gantz and Netanyahu released a joint statement saying there had been “significant progress in talks to form an emergency unity government.”

Gantz is seeking a unity government with Likud that would see him and Netanyahu rotate the premiership, with the incumbent prime minister keeping the reins for the first 18 months.

There were no details early Tuesday on what compromises had been made, but Channel 12 news reported that Netanyahu’s allies in the Yamina party were fuming over the agreements and were set to bolt to the opposition.

Even without Yamina’s six seats, Netanyahu could easily build a coalition with Blue and White’s support.

A main point of contention between the sides in recent days was believed to be Likud’s desire to make changes to judicial appointments procedures to give it greater control over the process, and Blue and White’s stark opposition to this.

Yamina had previously claimed Netanyahu had promised that he wouldn’t budge on the matter.

Another key issue was reportedly Netanyahu’s concern that the High Court of Justice may rule that he cannot be prime minister due to the criminal charges against him, a development which could leave Gantz as prime minister for the whole term of their coalition. Netanyahu was therefore reportedly 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.

As for annexation under the US peace plan, Gantz is believed to have withdrawn from his previous demand for a right of veto on the matter, essentially clearing the way for it to take place if it is approved by Washington.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a tree planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat in the West Bank settlement of Mevo’ot Yericho, in the Jordan Valley, February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

Notably, the 48-hour extension left Netanyahu and Gantz with far less time than that in practice to agree on a deal: Tuesday evening until Wednesday evening are the last days of Passover, leaving little time for negotiations assuming the two do not hold talks during that festive period.

If the mandate were to end without the sides agreeing, Rivlin has indicated he would not then give Netanyahu 28 days to try his hand at forming a government as well, since the Likud leader does not have 61 MKs recommending him. Instead, Rivlin said that if the two leaders do not sign an agreement, he would ask Knesset members to recommend one of their peers to receive the mandate to form a government. The first MK to receive more than 61 recommendations would then be tasked by Rivlin. If the Knesset cannot agree on a candidate within 21 days, Israel would have to hold fourth elections.

Three rounds of elections since last April have failed to break a political deadlock that has left the country with a transitional government of limited power. Following the last vote, on March 2, Rivlin tasked Gantz with forming a government after he received the backing of a majority of lawmakers to be nominated with the job.

He received the nomination with the backing of left-wing and Arab lawmakers, but then, late last month, proceeded to launch negotiations with Netanyahu and with right-wing backing was elected Knesset speaker, a move that saw his Blue and White alliance break up.

Gantz, in a televised address to the nation on Monday evening before his meeting with Netanyahu, had implored the premier to ink a coalition deal. He urged Netanyahu to honor the terms of an agreement which he said was finalized by both sides last week. Netanyahu, who had earlier in the evening again called publicly for a unity government, then promptly invited Gantz to his residence for further talks, which culminated in the late-night announcement of significant headway.

Gantz in his speech did not make any accusations against Netanyahu’s handling of the negotiations and did not mention or hint at a reported threat that Blue and White has made to Likud.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz gives a video statement in Tel Aviv on April 13, 2020, in a handout photo distributed by the party. (Elad Malka/ Blue and White)

Gantz is Knesset speaker with control over the parliamentary agenda. The threat looming over the coalition negotiations is that should Likud call off the talks, Gantz and his Blue and White MKs would rejoin the anti-Netanyahu bloc in passing legislation to prevent an indicted person — namely Netanyahu — from serving as premier.

Israeli law requires cabinet ministers facing criminal indictment to resign from their cabinet posts, but there is no such stipulation for a prime minister.

Netanyahu faces seven counts of three criminal charges: fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. He denies the allegations and says he is the victim of an attempted political coup by the opposition, police and state prosecutors. His trial is scheduled to begin next month, though it remains unclear whether it will open then, due to the pandemic.

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