Secret national unity gov't talks make major progress

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu  / Photo: Elad Malka, ira prohorov

Benny Gantz accepts the principle of Benjamin Netanyahu starting as prime minister in a rotation government and suspending himself if indicted, political sources tell "Globes."

"There will be no third round of elections, and the government formed will be a national unity government," one of the people most involved in the coalition negotiations told "Globes" today. He later qualified his comments, saying that those opposed to an agreement might nevertheless thwart it, and that any unity government formed will have quite a few conflicts. He repeated, however, that a national unity government was far more likely and logical than another election.

How was this accomplished? As usual in politics, not in the official negotiations with cameras, statements, and announcements by a spokesperson before and after, but in berhind the scenes secret talks between the parties involved, in this case Blue and White Party chairman Benny Gantz and his associates and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his closest advisers.

These contacts have actually been taking place since the week after the elections, sources inform "Globes," and began publicly at the residence of President Reuven Rivlin. According to political sources, Rivlin is aware of what is now taking place, and is urging the parties to go ahead. The sources indicate that the talks are not continuous, and are accompanied by ups and downs, and even severing of contact. The signs can be seen in the politicians' speeches, but they have led to quite a few agreements in principle, while several weighty questions remain to be settled.

Among other things, according to these sources, Gantz and most of his associates are willing to accept the principle of Rivlin's plan, whereby Netanyahu will begin as prime minister, but will suspend himself if indicted. The decision about the cases against Netanyahu is likely to be made this month. This plan corresponds to Blue and White's statements that it will not serve in a government with Netanyahu if he is under indictment. Under these circumstances, Gantz will become acting prime minister until half of the Knesset's term is over, and will then become Israel's official prime minister. He will thus be in the prime minister's chair for almost the entire term of the national unity government.

Blue and White told "Globes," This is the purpose for which we were elected: to rule, and to be head of the coalition and the government. The Likud says that the fear of failure in third election campaign is real, thereby supporting Naftali Bennett's (New Right) warning yesterday that the right-wing bloc would suffer a "historic collapse" in a third election campaign.

The security situation is the trigger for agreement

There are also non-political reasons for the two sides' willingness to go forward. Political sources told "Globes" that Israel's difficult political situation, especially with Iran, but also in the Gaza Strip, were among the factors that persuaded Gantz to go ahead with the negotiations. At Netanyahu's orders, former IDF Chief of Staff Gantz was informed of the Ministry of Defense's intelligence reports and current assessments, and shared at least some of them with his colleagues in Blue and White's leadership.

A report by economists shown to Gantz indicates that new elections would also cause a genuine crisis, and would cause severe damage in many spheres in need of reforms and budgets, some of which have been approved in principle, but which cannot be passed. Netanyahu is saying at every opportunity that only a national unity government is on the agenda.

His spokesperson published an announcement rejecting the proposal to hold elections only for prime minister against Gantz, and saying that the prime minister is interested only in a broad-based national unity government. It is widely believed that Netanyahu believes that a third election campaign will at best result in the same situation for him, and quite likely to a worse one, especially if the elections take place after an indictment is filed against him. One technical reason suggested is that as a sitting prime minister, he will be tried in front of judges from the Jerusalem District Court, not in front of a Tel Aviv judge specializing in economic crime. Netanyahu greatly prefers the first possibility.

Sources in Blue and White say that three of the four party leaders are in agreement. This is something of a surprise, because Gabi Ashkenazi, and especially Moshe Ya'alon, are very strongly opposed to Netanyahu. The sources say that Ashkenazi is the one most useful to Gantz in persuading the other members, also because of the information revealed to him on defense matters.

On the other side is ranged MK Yair Lapid, whose main argument is that such a government will be in a state of paralysis, and will be unable to carry out the necessary reforms, especially in matter of religion and state. Lapid's original agreement with Gantz stated that they would rotate as prime minister, and the fate of this agreement under a national unity government is still unclear. Sources we spoke with, however, said that in the end, Lapid would agree if at least some of the changes in religion and state matters are passed. The agreements reached in the talks also include an equal division of ministers for each side, with the Likud agreeing that its ministries would also be shared with the members of its bloc. Blue and White emphasizes that it is still searching for a solution to the problem of the majority that the rightwing and haredi (Jewish ultra-Orthodox) parties have in the Knesset. One of the proposals raised is that the agreements reached by Netanyahu and Gantz will be binding on this entire group, with the possibility of abstaining in Knesset votes.

Lapid is again in a minority among the other members of his own party on issues of religion and state. He is demanding a list of important reforms, including the operation of public transportation on the Sabbath, repeal of the 2018 amendment to the Municipalities Ordinance (also known as the Supermarkets Law), a new plan for IDF conscription, and a core curriculum in state-funded educational institutions. Sources we spoke with said that at least some of the demands have already been agreed to by the parties, but Netanyahu gave no assurances that the haredi parties would also agree, and Gantz gave no assurances about Lapid's agreement.

Proposals for a solution deal with decision mechanisms for decisions on legislative and political issues, with the leaders of Likud and Blue and White exercising authority in the matter.

Deep involvement by Deri

In the rightwing and haredi bloc, political sources are talking about deep involvement in the talks by Shas Party chairman Aryeh Deri, but he denies this. In any case, Netanyahu needs Deri's involvement and agreement to go ahead with this possibility, and Deri, who yesterday brought Gantz and Netanyahu together yesterday at a Knesset ceremony in memory of late Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is a key link. At this stage, he is promoting an initiative for holding direct elections for prime minister only, without dissolution of the Knesset, but this appears to be much more of a smokescreen than a real possibility.

The haredi parties are adhering to the "status quo" slogan. At an Anti-Defamation League conference today, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said, "I do not want to change the country; I just want to ensure that what has been is what will be." Flexibility in the matter is based on the fact that what is now happening differs substantially from the old status quo lines, especially where the Sabbath is concerned, and it is also clear to the haredi parties that the status quo ante cannot be restored, and that they will have to accept the current situation, including the recent changes in the operation of public transportation on the Sabbath.

At the Anti-Defamation League conference, Gantz appeared to confirm these agreements, when he said, "80% of us in Israel society agree on 80% of the issues. We can argue about the rest, but we must not drag Israel into another election campaign and throw away billions. For me, unity is the realization that we all have only one goal: the good of Israel and of Israelis." Nevertheless, he went on to attack Netanyahu, accusing him of responsibility for delay in forming the government. "In the last elections, most Israelis voted for unity, while some are concerned about their personal and legal interests. I'm doing everything - openly and in confidence - to take advantage of this vote, and to prevent an election campaign that will serve the split."

In the bottom line, the statements, photos, and announcements by spokespeople are concealing the talks that are constantly taking place, and which are bringing closer the formation of a national unity government with Blue and White and Likud, with the participation of at least part, if not all, of the members of the rightwing bloc. This is the most likely possibility on the agenda, and is now far more likely that early elections.

Neither side denied what was stated in this report. Blue and White stated, "We probably will not respond about unofficial contacts." The Likud made no response, other than an announcement that Netanyahu was doing whatever he could to promote a broad-based national unity government, "the only government that can be formed, and that Israel needs at this time."

What about Avigdor Liberman? He published a Facebook post yesterday accusing Netanyahu of dragging the country into elections, and stating, "The people will not forgive him… the election campaign culminated in an unequivocal statement by the people, who want a liberal unity government. Unfortunately, there are parties attempting to prevent the formation of a government by all possible means, and essentially focusing instead on personal matters." Liberman today denied reports about talks mediated by Ayelet Shaked (New Right) for his return to a rightwing coalition, with compromises on religion and state.

Liberman, an old political fox, understands what is going on, and is negotiating with all of the parties around, especially with Blue and White, where he is backing Lapid's positions. He, too, knows that it will be ironic if his party, Yisrael Beitenu, is left out of a national unity government formed as a result of elections caused by him.

Presumption of innocence: Even after the filing of an indictment, subject to a hearing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a suspect. He denies the acts attributed to him, and is innocent until proven guilty.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 5, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu  / Photo: Elad Malka, ira prohorov
Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu / Photo: Elad Malka, ira prohorov
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