Unity talks said to stall as Gantz refuses to back annexation plan

Blue and White willing to give up on Foreign Ministry in exchange for top health post, but wants Edelstein out of speaker’s chair; latter willing to become foreign minister instead

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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)
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)

Unity government talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party snagged on Monday, as the sides failed to come together on the issue of West Bank annexation, stalling a deal that was set to put an end to the country’s year-long deadlock.

The sides have also struggled to resolve differences over the divying up of ministry posts and the Knesset speaker slot, legislative priorities, and other issues. The Yamina party from Likud’s right-religious bloc has also threatened to bolt after seemingly being sidelined, further complicating the negotiations.

Among the main issues is Netanyahu’s insistence that Gantz commit to backing annexation of large parts of the the West Bank in coordination with the United States, which the Blue and White leader has refused, according to Hebrew media reports.

While Netanyahu made declaration of Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements, as well as over the Jordan Valley, a staple of his campaign ahead of the March 2 election, Gantz provided mixed messages on the matter. He expressed support for annexing the Jordan Valley, but conditioned the measure on it being coordinated with the international community — an idea that appears far-fetched as the US has been the only country that has not rejected annexation offhand.

While tentatively backing the Trump plan earlier this year, the Blue and White chairman has long insisted he opposes unilateral steps to end the conflict and, according to Channel 12, has returned to that position in coalition negotiations.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (C) speaks to reporters during a visit to the Jordan Valley on January 21, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Even before the election, annexation appeared well on its way to being achieved, as a joint US-Israeli mapping team arrived in Israel in February to tour the West Bank and mark the exact borders Israel could lay claim to under the plan.

However, the team’s progress has since stalled, amid the coronavirus outbreak, and it is unclear when it will be able to return to Israel to finish its work, with the November US presidential election also looming.

Other sticking points for the sides in unity talks are over appointments to senior posts, such as Knesset speaker, justice minister, and health minister.

Former speaker Yuli Edelstein is seeking to return to the post he vacated last week, whe he quit rather than agree to obey a High Court of Justice ruling requiring him to hold a vote on his replacement. Gantz has expressed opposition to the idea, and made a point of lambasting Edelstein over his conduct in his speech upon being elected interim speaker on Thursday.

According to Channel 13, the senior Likud MK is willing to give up on his quest to become speaker once again if he is named foreign minister instead. Army Radio reported that Edelstein’s associates were sending warnings to Blue and White that if Edelstein is not tapped as speaker, the position will be given to Likud MK Yariv Levin, who is seen as far more hardline.

Despite earlier reports to the contrary, Channel 13 said that Blue and White has also not given up on replacing Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who has been heavily criticized over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly for the ultra-Orthodox lawmaker’s inability to explain the importance of following the guidelines to the Haredi public, while also urging to keep ritual baths open throughout the country.

The network reported Monday that Blue and White is willing to relinquish the foreign ministry post that was likely to go to MK Gabi Ashkenazi, in exchange for one of its lawmakers being tapped to head the health ministry. However, Netanyahu raised the possibility with Litzman in recent days and the United Torah Judaism chairman rejected the idea out of hand.

Benny Gantz (R) at the Knesset on March 26, 2020, after being elected Knesset speaker. (Knesset)

As for the justice minister portfolio, Likud insisted that Blue and White MK Chili Tropper be appointed to the post, rather than MK Avi Nissenkorn from the same party or an appointee from outside the government, according to Channel 12. Netanyahu associates are concerned that Nissenkorn would take a more aggressive approach at walking back legislative moves to curb the power of the courts — efforts that right-wing lawmakers have been championing in recent years.

In a move that could further stem progress in the talks, Netanyahu’s office also announced on Monday that he would be voluntarily self-quarantining as a precaution until Health Ministry officials finish their epidemiological investigation into whether he was exposed to the coronavirus from an aide who contracted COVID-19.

After significant progress toward an agreement on a 35th government had been reported on Sunday, Netanyahu began facing pressure from his right-wing and religious partners, who expressed frustration over posts they had long held being handed to Gantz’s party.

On Monday, the Yamina faction issued a public letter to Netanyahu in which it “established red lines” for the coalition being formed, warning that if they are crossed, the national religious slate would take its six seats and sit in the opposition.

Various unconfirmed reports Sunday said that in the emerging government, Yamina would be cut down from three current minister positions — Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Education Minister Rafi Peretz — to just the education portfolio.

Yamina lawmakers wave to supporters in Kfar Maccabiah after exit polls are released on March 2, 2020. (Flash90)

In their Monday letter, the Yamina lawmakers stated their rejection of allowing Gantz to veto West Bank annexation, as well as to the appointment of Blue and White lawmakers to head the justice and defense ministries. However, they did not specify any one action as constituting the crossing of a “red line.”

“It was clear that a unity government would require concessions from both sides… but there must be red lines. A unity government cannot be a leftist government, even if it is you who is leading it,” the Yamina MKs warned.

Amid criticism that his government will give too much power to the center and center-left factions, Netanyahu spoke to his right-wing and religious political allies on Sunday night to reassure them about the coalition talks, calling reports on the distribution of cabinet portfolios, “total fake news.”

A meeting of the heads of the bloc of parties supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), January 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

However, that did not seem to convince Yamina’s former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, who told Army Radio on Monday that “we have been part of the right-wing bloc for three difficult elections, and I would like to hope that Netanyahu won’t break up this bloc.

In light of Yamina’s threats, Likud has been demanding that the new government contain no less than 36 minister portfolios, according to Blue and White sources cited by Hebrew-language media.

A Likud source told The Times of Israel that the current draft of the deal being discussed by Likud and Blue and White negotiators sees parity between the religious-right and center-left blocs, with several concessions being made on both sides.

A flurry of reports on Sunday suggested that the Likud, Yamina, United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, which are negotiating in coalition talks with Blue and White as a single bloc, were going to get at least 15 ministries in total in the new government.

According to the reports, the imminent deal would also see the 15-member Blue and White — possibly joined by three members of Labor and Gesher (Amir Peretz, Itzik Shmuli and Orly Levy-Abekasis) and by Telem MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, formerly of Blue and White — receive a similar number of cabinet portfolios, meaning almost every MK in Gantz’s party would become a minister.

The unity talks came after Gantz, in a shock move, was elected Knesset speaker Thursday, setting the stage for a coalition with Netanyahu and leading to the splintering of the Blue and White alliance, which had campaigned during the three elections over the past year on ousting Netanyahu, due to his indictment on graft charges.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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