Progress was reported Monday morning in the negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White to form a unity government, even as a former partner urged Gantz to return to the center-left bloc opposing the premier.
With a midnight deadline for Gantz to form a government looming, both sides are close to reaching an agreement on judicial issues, which have been a sticking point, the Kan public broadcaster reported. It said Likud would give up proposed changes to the way senior judges are selected, with a clause saying instead that appointments would be carried out with the approval of both parties.
According to the report, Gantz will promise to go to fresh elections — the fourth in a row — instead of trying to form a government himself, in the event that the High Court rules that Netanyahu cannot form a new government due to the corruption indictment against him.
The report said Netanyahu was also demanding legislation that would override any such court ruling.
Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid faction and Gantz’s former running mate, wrote on Twitter that he “can’t believe that Blue and White will give Bibi an immunity law. There is no ‘override clause’ for the High Court. At least call it by its name: an immunity law for Bibi. The thing he wanted the whole while, and even the right wing didn’t give him.”
Despite the reported progress, the Netanyahu-aligned right-wing Yamina party said Netanyahu had promised Sunday that he wouldn’t hand over control of the Judicial Appointments Committee to Blue and White or make any compromise on the issue of annexing parts of the West Bank.
“We strengthen the prime minister’s hands in insisting on the red lines of the right-wing bloc with regard to sovereignty and judicial appointments,” Yamina said in a statement. “Abandoning the Judicial Appointments Committee to the left would be a disaster that would resonate for generations.”
Meanwhile, Gantz’s former Blue and White No. 3 and head of the Telem faction, Moshe Ya’alon, urged Gantz to pull out of the negotiations after being “tricked” by Netanyahu.
“Benny, it’s clear that your naive intention to form an emergency government is being met by cynical lies by a defendant who is fleeing justice,” tweeted Ya’alon.
“If you agree to meet his demands to entrench his regime, and make him a leader who is above the law, you will be betraying the mission that united us. It isn’t too late to fix your navigation error,” he added.
Blue and White has warned Likud that unless a unity government deal is signed, it will push forward with legislation that would bar Netanyahu from serving as prime minister, Channel 12 reported Sunday.
Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, the former Blue and White No. 4, reportedly told Likud that they would “actively and energetically” pursue the legislation, following a breakdown in talks and a decision by President Reuven Rivlin not to extend Gantz’s mandate.
Despite Gantz losing much of his leverage following the breakup of his party, he is still Knesset speaker with control over the parliamentary agenda. The threat is that should Likud call off the talks after Blue and White split, Gantz and his MKs would rejoin the anti-Netanyahu bloc in passing legislation to prevent an indicted person — namely Netanyahu — from serving as premier.
Likud meanwhile, was reportedly looking to prevent Gantz from carrying out the threat by siphoning off members of Blue and White and Labor who would consider joining Netanyahu’s bloc rather than going for a fourth successive election in which they are likely to lose their Knesset seats.
Orly Levy-Abekasis, who last month defected from the left-wing Labor-Meretz-Gesher union, on Sunday declared that she would support Netanyahu for the premiership.
However, two other potential defectors, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, told Rivlin on Sunday that they would not support Netanyahu for prime minister unless a unity deal were signed, the Ynet news site reported.
The Likud party has urged the president to immediately grant Netanyahu the mandate, saying he is “the head of the largest party in the Knesset with 59 recommendations, just as President Rivlin acted after the previous elections in September, when he transferred the mandate from Prime Minister Netanyahu to MK Gantz.”
The right-wing religious bloc backing Netanyahu also urged Rivlin to give the Likud leader a shot at forming a government. In a statement, the heads of the Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Yamina parties called on Rivlin to “transfer the mandate to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has 59 recommendations, just like after the previous elections in September when you transferred the mandate to MK Benny Gantz when he had only 54 recommendations.”
Rivlin’s refusal Sunday to grant Gantz a 14-day extension to form a government came after he spoke with Gantz and Netanyahu. The prime minister, according to a statement from the President’s Residence, said the parties were not close to signing a coalition agreement.
Rivlin said that if the two leaders do not sign an agreement by midnight on Monday, 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.
The High Court on Sunday evening threw out a petition filed earlier in the day seeking to disqualify Netanyahu from forming a government due to his corruption charges. Justice Alex Stein ruled that the petition was premature, since Rivlin had not tasked Netanyahu with doing so.
Two previous High Court petitions have been rejected in recent months on similar grounds, including after the September elections, when Netanyahu had not yet been formally indicted.
Stein said in his ruling that in the event that Rivlin tasks Netanyahu with cobbling together a coalition, the petition could be filed again and considered.
The petition, filed by 117 high-tech, business, security and education professionals, came minutes after Rivlin announced he would not extend Gantz’s mandate to form a government, and suggested he would not transfer the mandate to Netanyahu.
Israeli law requires cabinet ministers facing criminal indictment to resign from their cabinet posts, but there is no such stipulation for a prime minister.
Blue and White and Likud were believed to have been on the cusp of reaching a deal last week, before Likud asked to reopen discussions on judicial appointments, leading the talks to blow up. Both parties said Sunday in a joint statement that they were forbidding their members from giving media interviews, hoping to end up signing a deal after all.
The negotiations had previously picked up pace after Gantz was elected Knesset speaker with the backing of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc on March 26, causing the Blue and White alliance to split.
Netanyahu’s trial was due to commence on March 17, but was delayed due to restrictions on Israel’s courts, as part of measures to combat the coronavirus, which were introduced by Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist. The trial is instead slated to begin on May 24.
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.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.