Blue and White leader Benny Gantz agreed to return to unity talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday, after President Reuven Rivlin refused to grant Gantz an extension on his mandate to form a government, which expires Monday at midnight.
In a potential sign of newfound determination to reach an agreement, both sides announced a media blackout in order to allow the talks to proceed without the leaks, recrimination and speculation that have hampered progress until now.
Netanyahu and Likud officials were exhorting Rivlin to transfer the mandate to the prime minister, whose bloc now numbers 59 MKs, just 2 short of a majority, after Gesher MK Orly Levy-Abecassis joined it earlier in the day.
But Rivlin said earlier Sunday that he would leave it to the Knesset to pick a candidate for prime minister within 21 days should the sides fail to reach a unity government by the deadline, according to reports.
That puts pressure on Netanyahu and Gantz to overcome their differences and form a coalition. However, a statement from Rivlin’s office said that Netanyahu and Gantz “did not confirm in their conversation that the parties are close to signing an agreement that would lead to a unity government.”
Levy-Abecassis wrote on social media that “Gantz’s request to extend his mandate is an admission that he cannot form a government,” and described Gantz’s attempts at a coalition of his own as “a strange political illusion.”
Gantz’s support has disintegrated since his return to negotiations with Netanyahu caused Blue and White to split and the Arab and left-wing parties to rail at what they see as a betrayal of their cause. In any event, it was not clear that he would be able to reach an agreement with the Joint Arab List.
“The prime minister should be given the mandate, because let’s admit that only he has a chance to form a government,” Levy-Abecassis wrote.
She also said that, to Netanyahu’s credit, he has managed the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic under the most difficult circumstances.
“Even in the existing situation, the government is functioning,” she said. “It can be criticized, but it is still functioning and is not unraveling.”
Likud Tourism Minister and chief negotiator Yariv Levin seconded her, asserting that “it cannot be that the leader of the largest bloc will not get a chance to form a government.”
In a statement, the heads of the Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina parties called on Rivlin to “transfer the mandate to 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.”
Indeed, prospects for a rapprochement with Gantz appeared murky. The issue that blew up the negotiations, when an agreement was reportedly ready for signing before Pesach, was that of control of the Justice Ministry and judicial appointments. Blue and White accused Likud of reneging on a deal that would see their man, MK Avi Nissenkorn, replace Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist, as Justice Minister.
On Sunday, Blue and White released a statement suggesting that they were not about to back down on that: “We have stated clearly that we will not allow the rule of law, nor any of the other fundamental principles that we have outlined, to be damaged.”
On Netanyahu’s side, Yamina was urging Gantz to concede the Justice Ministry. “Gantz, there’s no shame in giving in. As someone who heads a faction of 17 seats against a bloc of 59, your demands are illogical and illegitimate by any democratic logic.”
But if Gantz doesn’t give in, the logic of coalition-building may lead Netanyahu to give Gantz what he wants – with stipulations to prevent a rollback of right-wing gains in the judiciary in recent years – and let Yamina go into the opposition, as it has been threatening to do. The PM would still have enough MKs for a majority in the event Yamina leaves, since Gantz’s 17 seats more than offsets Yamina’s 6, giving it a total of 70.
Meanwhile, even if the Justice Ministry issue can be resolved – or if it can’t, but Rivlin can be persuaded to let Netanyahu have another shot at a narrow right-wing coalition – Netanyahu may still be stopped.
Firstly, he may not succeed in the two-MK conversion to 61. And even if he did, the High Court may intervene. It has again been petitioned to bar Netanyahu from forming a government while under indictment for criminal charges of corruption.
In past months, the Court threw out the petition as being “premature,” since Netanyahu was not at the time, before elections, able to form a government. On Sunday, the judges again told the petitioners it was too soon.
But, the Court said, if Rivlin does give Netanyahu the mandate, it will have to consider the matter.
In the event the Court does disqualify Netanyahu, it would result in yet another political impasse, and a potentially explosive public reaction.