Differences on key issues threaten to bog down Netanyahu-Gantz unity talks

April 1, 2020 by Dov Lipman - JNS
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While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz have agreed to work towards the formation of an emergency unity government to end a bitter political standoff and respond effectively to the coronavirus crisis, negotiations on political appointments as well as government policies are proving difficult.

Election posters hung by the Blue and White Party show their candidate Benny Gantz and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Feb. 18, 2020. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Several key issues are now placing the signing of a unity agreement in doubt. Likud MK Miki Zohar, a member of Netanyahu’s negotiating team, told JNS that “a unity government is important, but not at all costs.”

The first problem relates to the recently introduced U.S. Peace to Prosperity vision, which deals with the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu is eager to advance the first phase of the plan, which permits Israel to apply formal sovereignty over disputed territories in Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank. The prime minister believes this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and is demanding that the application of sovereignty be a key policy of a unity government.

Gantz, on the other hand, is unwilling to advance any unilateral Israeli actions with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite telling President Donald Trump in a White House meeting that he would work to implement the peace vision if elected.

The Israel Hayom newspaper reports that the senior Likud members have said “application Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria under the auspices of the Trump administration’s peace outline was ‘non-negotiable,’” and added that the issue was on the table at the very start of the negotiations with Blue and White.

A second impediment is the assignment of senior government portfolios. As part of the agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz, the Blue and White Party chairman will serve as defence minister, often considered the highest-level job after prime minister. In addition, Gantz is demanding that the Justice Ministry portfolio be given to former labour union chief Avi Nissenkorn, a member of Gantz’s left-wing camp.

Netanyahu wants the post assigned to one of his right-wing allies, as he seeks to reform the powers of Israel’s High Court and simultaneously assure that new laws will not be passed to bar a prime minister from serving while under indictment.

Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, of the right-wing Yamina Party, told JNS that “the handing over of the defence and justice ministries to the left means ideological enslavement to the left. It means the destruction of the entire justice ministry revolution and the regularization effort we have led in Judea and Samaria in recent years.”

Shaked said her party could not join a government that would undo the conservative agenda she advanced in the Justice Ministry. Many members of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party have the same hesitation about moving forward with a unity government because of this issue.

A third challenge is the assignment of the next Knesset Speaker. Gantz is refusing to consent to Netanyahu’s demand that longtime Speaker Yuli Edelstein return to the post. Last week in a contentious political drama, the High Court of Justice ordered Edelstein to call for a vote for a new Speaker prior to the formation of a coalition government, per the wishes of Gantz’s left-wing bloc as well as a 15-seat Arab Joint List. Rather than hold the vote, which contravened the Knesset’s own bylaws, Edelstein resigned, insisting that the court did not have jurisdiction to involve itself in legislative procedures.

Gantz is now insisting that having refused to carry out a High Court ruling, Edelstein cannot return to the position—even if Edelstein believes his move was justified. Netanyahu believes Edelstein was correct in acting to prevent the court from interfering in the independent affairs of the Knesset.

Meanwhile, Channel 13 reports that Edelstein, who is No. 2 on the Likud Party list behind Netanyahu, has said he would “give up the Knesset Speaker position in return for the Foreign Minister portfolio.” The senior post is tentatively set to be given to Blue and White No. 2 Gabi Ashkenazi.

Similarly, Gantz is demanding that current Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, chairman of the United Torah Judaism Party (UTJ), be replaced by a medical professional. Gantz blames Litzman for the deterioration of the Health Ministry which he has led for five years and is attacking the health system’s lack of preparedness for the coronavirus crisis.

Last week, a group of senior doctors submitted a letter to the government stating that the coronavirus pandemic “has exposed and caught the health-care system at a low point from an organizational and operational point of view, which everyone had been aware of,” and adding that “it is right for a professional to be appointed to head the Health Ministry; a doctor with vast experience in Israeli health care.”

Gantz is now similarly insisting that Israel needs a professional from the medical industry, as opposed to a political appointee, to lead the Health Ministry and guide Israel through the coronavirus crisis. Netanyahu, on the other hand, believes that Litzman has performed well so far during the crisis.

Netanyahu needs to hand at least one ministerial portfolio to UTJ, a key member of his right-wing bloc, and supports the experienced Litzman continuing in his current position.

The final challenge which both Netanyahu and Gantz face within their respective blocs relates to the division of the remaining ministry portfolios.

In addition, Netanyahu is facing challenges over ministerial appointments from members of his own party. In the past government Likud members held 16 portfolios. As part of the generous agreement with Gantz, Netanyahu agreed that half of the ministries would be given to Gantz’s much smaller bloc, leaving significantly less available positions for Likud and the larger right-wing bloc.

‘Preservation of the national camp’

In the current alignment, Likud is expected to have 10 ministries at most. One idea being floated is expanding the executive branch to 36 ministries. However, ministries are expensive to operate, particularly during a budgetary crisis. To make up for the lack of available posts, Netanyahu may instead dispatch senior Likud members and soon-to-be-former ministers as ambassadors to the United Nations, United States, Great Britain and Russia.

Defense Minister and chairman of the Yamina Party Naftali Bennett is demanding two ministries for his six-seat party, including one senior post. However, seemingly all of the high-profile positions which would appease Bennett are expected to be given to Blue and White as part of the unity deal.

Current reports suggest Bennett may be offered the lesser internal security portfolio which oversees the police, fire and rescue departments.

Meanwhile, Yamina, which has remained loyal to Netanyahu throughout an extended election season, is threatening to take its six seats into the opposition. Netanyahu does not want to see the defection of any right-wing parties from his bloc, as he believes the loyalty of smaller parties give him further leverage against Gantz.

In response, the Likud Party stated that “the prime minister made it clear that the preservation of the national camp is more important than ever,” while insisting that rumours currently circulating through the media regarding portfolio assignments are “fake news.”

Gantz, on the other hand, faces an opposite challenge: While the Blue and White chairman has demanded that his bloc receive the same number of portfolio assignments as Netanyahu’s bloc, his party is entering the government with only 17 MKs. If Gantz assigns 15 ministerial portfolios to Blue and White members, there will only be two remaining MKs who can reasonably remain active within the legislative branch. To free up some of its members to advance its legislative agenda, Blue and White may appoint professionals rather than politicians to key ministries.

The left-wing Labor Party faction is also expected to join the government as part of Gantz’s bloc. Gantz has tentatively agreed for Labor chairman Amir Peretz to serve as economy minister and Labor MK Itzik Shmuli to serve as welfare minister.

At the core of the agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz is a rotation agreement for the premiership. Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the first 18 months, according to the deal, and will then yield the post to Gantz in September 2021.

During the first 18 months, Gantz, a former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, will serve as both deputy prime minister and defence minister.

Yet to be worked out during the negotiations is the challenging question of what post-Netanyahu will receive during the second half of the rotation. Israeli law prohibits ministers—with the exception of the prime minister—from continuing to serve while under indictment.

Legislation will need to be passed by the new government to enable Netanyahu to continue to serve as a deputy prime minister and as a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet despite being charged with criminal offences.

If the two sides cannot reach an agreement in the coming days, Israel may be headed toward an unprecedented fourth election.

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