Unity talks continue despite Knesset shutdown, COVID-19 crisis

March 20, 2020 by Dov Lipman - JNS
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With Israel’s Knesset shut down and amid an ongoing national health crisis, negotiations towards a unity government are quietly continuing.

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz at the memorial ceremony for the late Israeli President Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on Sept. 19, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, shut down Knesset proceedings on Wednesday after Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party refused his proposal for equal representation of the two leading parties in a key Knesset committee. Edelstein said that he will reopen the Knesset “when we are prepared for it,” adding, “I hope and pray that good sense will win and we will begin our parliamentary oversight work.”

The Likud is insisting that party representation in all Knesset committees be equal and that Blue and White not hold a majority in them, citing the March 2 election results with gave the Likud’s right-wing bloc 59 mandates to the centre-left alliance’s 61. Likud MK Yoav Kisch told JNS that this is a reasonable demand and that Blue and White is to blame for the parliamentary situation. “Neither side has the capability to form a government. It’s time to come together and make a national unity government to cope with this crisis,” he said.

The Blue and White leadership, however, has suggested that Edelstein is preventing the Knesset from functioning in order to prevent a vote to replace him. Blue and White, Labor/Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint List, which together amount to a Knesset majority of 61 seats, seek to replace Edelstein as speaker with MK Meir Cohen of Blue and White. In addition to replacing the speaker, should Blue and White take control of the Knesset committees with their majority, they will also be able to move forward with legislation to oust Netanyahu.

In response to Edelstein’s closure of the Knesset, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin took the unusual step of calling on him to reopen the parliament, citing the COVID-19 crisis.

“A Knesset that’s out of action harms the ability of the State of Israel to function well and responsibly in an emergency. We must not let this crisis, as serious as it is, harm our democratic process,” he said.

Blue and White MK Boaz Toporovsky echoed Rivlin, telling told JNS that the shuttering of the Knesset posed “a real danger to democracy.”

“Now that Netanyahu shut down the courts because of the coronavirus and Edelstein is not letting the Knesset work, at this moment only one branch of the three branches of government is working—the executive branch,” he said.

Early on Sunday, Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana placed the country’s court system on an emergency footing due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, court activity was frozen, except for urgent hearings. Because of the move, Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges, which was to have begun on Tuesday, was delayed until May 24.

Edelstein, too, cited the outbreak as part of the reason for his closure of the Knesset.

Four MKs, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas), Agriculture Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), Ram Ben Barak (Blue and White) and Alon Shuster (Blue and White) have been sent into quarantine because they all met with head of the Merhavim Regional Council, Shai Hajaj to discuss the corona crisis, and Hajaj has now tested positive for the virus. The head of the Knesset security forces, Yosef Grif, has informed top Knesset officials that the Knesset building will have to be closed at some point due to the outbreak.

Likud MK Yoav Kisch told JNS that “the virus is making it very difficult for any real parliamentary work to take place. We are going to have to switch to remote video-based meetings for committee and plenary work—and that distance will make it very difficult to make progress on the important issues of the day. It will take time, but we will adapt.”

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has announced that his party will appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn the Knesset shutdown.

Despite all of this, however, Likud officials have acknowledged to JNS that negotiations for a unity government are ongoing. The goal is to bring together all Zionist parties, from Labor/Meretz on the far left to Yamina on the far right, in a 105-member government, with a rotation agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz for the premiership. Likud is asking for Netanyahu’s term, which would come before Gantz’s, to last for two years, while Blue and White wants Gantz to replace him after one.

Ministries would be divided equally between the right and centre-left camps. Blue and White has demanded the defence, foreign affairs, internal security, justice and culture portfolios, and so far the Likud has agreed to give them the defence ministry, which would be headed by Blue and White No. 4 Gabi Ashkenazi, according to the officials. 

In a possible indication of improving relations between the two leading parties, after Netanyahu on Tuesday night posted the new Health Ministry regulations regarding the coronavirus outbreak, Gantz shared the post and wrote: “When it comes to people’s lives—there are no politics. Israel comes before everything. Protect yourselves and your families and fully obey instructions.”

Netanyahu then shared Gantz’s post and wrote, “Very important. Thanks, Benny.”

And to top it off, President Reuven Rivlin shared the thread and wrote, “Maybe we can continue with this at the government table, friends?”

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