Unity government nears completion as Yamina threatens to bolt

Likud, Blue and White may have found a solution to their standoff over West Bank annexation: Let Trump decide

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (L) of Yamina speaks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with leaders of right-wing parties at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (L) of Yamina speaks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with leaders of right-wing parties at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition talks between Likud and Blue and White have reached the “final stretch,” officials from both parties said Thursday as the two sides seek to reach a deal before the Passover holiday next week.

A unity agreement was “nearly completed,” confirmed Blue and White MK Hili Tropper.

Negotiations are set to resume Friday. with both parties reportedly seeking to finalize the new government by the weekend and to swear in the new cabinet before the Passover holiday begins on Wednesday evening.

The major sticking point in the talks — annexation of parts of the West Bank — appears to have been bridged, though reports and claims about how it was bridged contradict each other.

Likud had demanded to annex part of the West Bank within the next six months, fulfilling the party’s campaign promise. But Blue and White has insisted on delaying any dramatic geopolitical steps for at least six months while Israel deals with the COVID-19 crisis.

In this February 18, 2020 photo, a view of the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Efraim on the hills of the Jordan Valley. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Both parties have cited the coronavirus pandemic as their reason. Blue and White argues geopolitically sensitive steps will distract from managing both the immediate crisis and the economic collapse that is expected to follow. Likud officials, meanwhile, say the Trump administration’s much-criticized response to the contagion could cost US President Donald Trump his reelection in November — and shutter the “window of opportunity” of a favorable US diplomatic umbrella for an annexation.

But the sides reached a significant “development” on Thursday that heralded a possible compromise, Blue and White officials told reporters.

One reported version of that compromise: The new unity government would only carry out an annexation if the Trump administration gave its full-throated backing to the move.

It’s not clear whether the US would indeed back the move, which makes the compromise a possible concession to Gantz’s wish to delay any unilateral steps in the West Bank. The compromise would neutralize Likud’s argument: if annexation is urgent because US support could evaporate after November, any decision to annex earlier should first make sure that support exists now.

The Trump administration has wavered on the issue. After initially signaling approval for Israel to implement a limited annexation after it published its peace plan last year, the administration has since withdrawn support for immediate steps and told Israel to wait while Washington tries to boost support for its plan in some friendly Arab capitals.

US President Donald Trump participates in an expanded bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, January 27, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

If that part of a compromise makes it into the new government’s policy guidelines, it suggests both Gantz and Netanyahu appear to believe they will be able to convince the administration to take their side — or that despite public declarations to the contrary, neither is actually keen on implementing any annexation in the near term.

The issue is politically vital for Netanyahu, who faces an angry uprising among his right-wing allies over his massive concessions to Gantz on ministerial posts and policies — including half the next government’s expected 34 cabinet seats. The prime minister has made a dramatic show of holding his ground this week in the negotiations over the government’s annexation policies, mostly to shore up support among his aggrieved right-wing as the negotiations draw to a close.

Another version of the compromise, one being described by Likud sources, would delay annexation but for less than the six months demanded by Gantz. This compromise attempts to neutralize Blue and White’s argument: If the key problem isn’t the principle of annexation, but the danger of distracting the government from its battle against the epidemic, then annexation should become a legitimate policy choice when the crisis recedes.

Blue and White has demanded and received “vote freedom” on the issue, the right for every lawmaker to vote their conscience when any annexation proposal comes up for a vote in the Knesset or cabinet, without their vote being considered a violation of the coalition agreement.

None of these ideas appears to be finalized in writing yet, and talks are still underway on the thorny question. But both parties have reportedly signaled their acquiescence in principle to compromising along these lines.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s no accident that annexation has emerged as the central disagreement of the negotiations. The fight isn’t over the policy itself, but over the overarching narrative and identity of the new government.

Gantz needs to show that his dramatic leap into a Netanyahu government — after running in three elections on the promise to unseat the scandal-plagued Likud leader — has succeeded in dramatically shifting Israeli politics toward the center.

He seems to be succeeding, at least for now. A poll published Thursday by Channel 12 showed 47 percent of voters who chose Blue and White on March 2 would vote for his Israel Resilience party today. His other partners in the former Blue and White alliance, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem parties, would win just 22% of those voters. The poll also gives Gantz’s party 20 seats, which simple arithmetic suggests shows at least one-quarter of his current support comes from beyond Blue and White’s reliable electorate.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, needs to show he can deliver unity without compromising on the right’s fundamental needs and principles — especially as he struggles to contain the anger in Likud and Yamina over the paltry number of cabinet posts he can offer them.

Gantz’s apparent wins at the negotiating table — left-leaning ex-union leader MK Avi Nissenkorn as the next justice minister; stalled or possibly frozen annexation; former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein prevented from returning to the speakership — have sparked a firestorm of near-unanimous condemnation on the right.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz photographed in his car at the party headquarters, in Tel Aviv, September 2019. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“Likud is redefining the concept of negotiations: Fulfilling all the wishes of the other side and giving him everything he wants,” quipped Yehudah Yifrach, the respected legal editor of the high-brow right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon.

“Despite the loyalty we showed for a year and a half,” including refusing to help Gantz form a coalition in two previous elections, “the Likud seems to be throwing us away again,” charged Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked in an interview with the right-wing website Arutz Sheva. She described the talks as “a breakdown of all right-wing values.”

The frustration with Netanyahu is understandable. In his race to conclude his agreement with Gantz, he hasn’t yet even started talks with his most loyal right-wing partners.

The worst blow for Yamina came on Thursday, when it learned (from media reports, to be sure) that Netanyahu had found a dignified solution to the Edelstein conundrum: Blue and White would hand Likud the prestigious but ultimately uninfluential Foreign Ministry and Edelstein would become foreign minister; Likud’s current tourism minister, Yariv Levin, would become Knesset speaker; and Blue and White would be compensated with the Education Ministry, which runs the national education system and boasts the largest budget of any government agency.

There’s just one problem. Such a switch could only come if the Eduction Ministry were taken out of the hands of Yamina’s Rafi Peretz.

Former justice minister and Yamina lawmaker Ayelet Shaked speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In an enraged response calculated to threaten Netanyahu personally, Yamina released a statement with a thinly veiled threat to back anti-corruption legislation — that is, legislation proposed by Blue and White meant to prevent an indicted MK like Netanyahu from serving as prime minister — if it is relegated to the opposition.

“We’re not part of Netanyahu and Gantz’s game of musical chairs,” the statement read. “We have no intention of being a fig leaf in a leftist government that has sold out on the justice portfolio, is killing sovereignty [i.e., annexation in the West Bank]…and more. Yamina will advance its values within the government or in the Knesset,” it vowed, and listed those values: “the land of Israel, reforming the judiciary, the country’s Jewish identity, the free market, *the war against corruption*, and more.”

The asterisks were in the original.

Likud responded quickly and no less stridently, decrying Yamina’s “shameful statement,” which is said “proves that for [cabinet] jobs they’re willing to join forces with the [Arab-majority] Joint List and the radical left to topple Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

Ignore the irony for the moment — Netanyahu accusing Yamina of a “shameful” willingness to “join forces” with the Arab parties while negotiating a unity deal with Gantz who had explicitly and openly relied on the Joint List’s votes. What is important here is how quickly Likud pivoted to depicting hard-right Yamina in language it usually reserves for its opponents, as in league with the Arab parties and the “radical left.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 9, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

Yamina has begun preparing for the increasingly realistic possibility that Netanyahu will sideline it and relegate it to the opposition. One signal of those preparations: Yamina MKs have drafted at least eight separate bills on distinctly right-wing issues that they plan to propose from the opposition for the sole purpose of forcing Likud to publicly oppose them. The bills would annex part of the West Bank, scale back judicial review of legislation, reform judicial appointments, and more.

Gantz has calculated his demands from the start to drive a wedge between Netanyahu and his heretofore loyal right-wing bloc. With Yamina now threatening to support legislation against Netanyahu and Netanyahu accusing Yamina head Naftali Bennett of left-wing sympathies, he seems to have achieved the goal.

Ironically for Yamina, its strategy may be less sound than it believes. Its warning that it would support anti-Netanyahu legislation only increases Gantz’s leverage over Netanyahu by making the legislative threat more credible, and so makes it more difficult for Netanyahu to force the very compromises out of the Blue and White leader that Yamina is seeking.

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