With Gantz on patio and PM quarantined inside, progress made toward unity deal
Two leaders forced to yell to each other with PM in precautionary isolation; main disagreement is still over annexing parts of West Bank, which Netanyahu wants as his ‘legacy’
Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief
Quarantined Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz met — albeit at a distance — on Friday to advance negotiations toward a unity government, with both sides saying afterward that significant progress was made.
The meeting was described as a “positive” one during which “understandings were reached,” according to a rare joint statement from their offices. The two party leaders instructed their negotiating teams “to try and bring about a coalition agreement between Blue and White and Likud as soon as possible,” it added.
The joint statement itself was seen as a sign of the progress in the talks.
Asked how the two were able to meet given that Netanyahu was forced into quarantine earlier this week after meeting with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who was confirmed Wednesday night as a COVID-19 carrier, a spokesman for the premier told The Times of Israel that the sit-down was held in accordance with the Health Ministry’s coronavirus guidelines.
Channel 13 explained that this meant Gantz sat on the patio of the prime minister’s residence and Netanyahu stayed inside. “The conversation featured raised voices,” it reported, but of necessity rather than in anger.
In a Facebook post following the meeting, Gantz said that a deal was within reach but that a number of hurdles still remain.
“It is clear to all of us that there is no other alternative for either party [other than a unity deal] and that the State of Israel needs a government,” Gantz wrote.
Reports said the two sides hoped to finalize the deal by Saturday night.
Disagreements over ministerial appointments have been solved, according to Channel 13, with Likud agreeing to Blue and White’s top choice of Avi Nissenkorn for justice minister, so long as it has some degree of veto over the appointment of Supreme Court justices.
Blue and White has also agreed to allow Litzman remain as health minister, despite the growing calls for his ouster over his handling of the virus outbreak and amid allegations — which Litzman denies — that he flouted his own ministry’s guidelines on social distancing.
But disputes still remain over the issue of West Bank annexation, according to an official involved in the negotiations.
Netanyahu views the move as a legacy-maker and has been adamant about seeing the election promise through before he hands over to Gantz, as scheduled under the tenative deal, in fall 2021.
Gantz, on the other hand, has long opposed unilateral annexation but recognizes that the right-wing bloc currently has a majority in support for the move, thanks to the votes of Telem defectors Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser as well as Yisrael Beytenu’s seven MKs from the opposition. He therefore is hoping to influence the decision from the powerful position of defense minister, which he is slated to become, Channel 12 reported.
Labor leader Amir Peretz and Gantz’s deputy Gabi Ashkenazi are said to be calling for a more secure mechanism to be instituted in order to neutralize the right-wing’s support for annexation. They have called for the move to be contingent on support from the Jordanian government, which has long opposed annexation, warning that it could place the future of its decade-long peace deal with Israel at risk.
Regardless, negotiators will meet again on Saturday evening in an effort to close the deal, an official involved in the negotiations told The Times of Israel.
The basis of the “emergency unity government,” which Gantz agreed to in principle last week (when he shocked many of his fellow faction members by blocking the nomination of an anti-Netanyahu lawmaker as Knesset speaker), will see the Likud leader stay on as premier for 18 months before being replaced for an equal amount of time by the Blue and White head.
Gantz explained at the time that a mixture of the pandemic crisis, the imperative to avoid a fourth round of elections and the threats to Israeli democracy left him no alternative but to abandon his promise to Blue and White voters through three elections not to sit in government with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister faces criminal charges.
Friday’s reported progress came two days after the Blue and White party reportedly threatened to resume a legislative push for a law making it impossible for an indicted MK — such as Netanyahu — to serve as prime minister.
Before Gantz became Knesset speaker, his then-Blue and White partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon were pressing to advance legislation barring an indicted lawmaker from being tapped to form a government. The bill would also limit a prime minister to two terms in office.
Lapid and Ya’alon had hoped that as the legislation was being advanced, the Likud leader would agree to a rotational government with Gantz, but with the Blue and White leader serving as prime minister first.
But breaking with his partners, Gantz said he would join a government with Netanyahu and serve as prime minister after the Likud leader, prompting the dissolution of Blue and White and kicking off the coalition talks.