Coalition talks: Why Netanyahu jumped off the wagon

According to the Blue and White party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bolted out of the coalition talks at the very last moment over the issue of his immunity.

al-monitor Head of Israel's Blue and White Party Benny Gantz and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they attend a memorial ceremony for the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem as Israel marks the 24th anniversary of Rabin's killing by an ultra-nationalist Jewish assassin, Nov. 10, 2019.  Photo by Heidi Levine/Pool via REUTERS.

Nov 26, 2019

In the current situation, as long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands at the head of the Likud, the formation of a unity government is an especially remote possibility. If an exceptionally dramatic political move doesn’t happen, Israel is expected to head toward a third election within one year at the beginning of March 2020. But up to Nov. 15, all of those involved in coalition talks between the Likud and the Blue and White party believed that the formation of a unity government is near and all of the remaining obstacles could be overcome.

It was at the end of a week that included rocket fire from Islamic Jihad on Israeli cities following the killing of one of the organization’s leaders, Baha Abu al-Ata. When the cannons are blazing, internal divisions are forgotten. Knesset member and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz had declared his full support for Netanyahu’s military moves on Nov. 13, although he made sure to keep this separate from politics in saying unequivocally that he supports a unity government. A day earlier, Netanyahu invited Gantz to a security update meeting and even held a similar meeting with Knesset member and chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee Gabi Ashkenazi of Blue and White. A political source said in a conversation with Al-Monitor that Ashkenazi was invited to the meeting with Netanyahu also because he was then seen as a force within Blue and White advocating for a unity government with Netanyahu.

After the September election, in an attempt to advance a unity government, President Reuven Rivlin suggested the incapacity plan according to which Netanyahu would declare incapacity if indicted and Gantz would fill his place. The plan also included a rotation between the two to lead the unity government. The president left the big question — that is, when exactly the period of incapacity would start — to be negotiated between the two sides.

Representatives of the Likud and Blue and White held negotiations, some unofficial and behind the scenes, moderated by Rivlin and an ultra-Orthodox political figure, and even reached some agreements. A senior source in Blue and White said at the time to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity: “The situation in the country is indeed very challenging, especially when it comes to security but also economically. Another election would cause a real crisis and a dangerous security deterioration. Without an ounce of cynicism, we can’t let it happen.”

Al-Monitor was informed that the Likud and Blue and White reached broad agreements on the composition of the government and the distribution of ministries. It was agreed that half of these would go to the right-wing Ultra-Orthodox bloc, including the Likud, and that half would go to Blue and White and other parties on the left that could join the unity government, like Labor-Gesher. It was agreed that issues of religion and state would be treated in discussion with the ultra-Orthodox parties, and an agreement was put together for partial public transportation on the Sabbath and for dealing with the issue of conversion. These agreements had opponents on both sides: Yaakov Litzman from the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah and senior Blue and White’s Yair Lapid. Lapid demanded additional reforms. Gantz and Netanyahu, for their part, believed they could overcome this opposition.

Gantz agreed in principle to the incapacity plan, explaining to his colleagues that thus he’ll be prime minister for nearly four whole years, since the incapacity period would come at the expense of the Likud’s time in the rotation. Another problem was Netanyahu’s commitment to the right-wing Ultra-Orthodox bloc. The formula suggested was that only those parties that would assent to the agreements reached by Likud and Blue and White leaders would join the coalition. Likewise, other agreements included a year without legislation on sensitive issues and the creation of joint committees.

Not all of Blue and White seniors agreed to such a unity government. Lapid refused to join a government in which the ultra-Orthodox held veto power over issues of religion and state. Nonetheless, the process of forming a unity government reached its peak. According to two Knesset members involved in the process, one from the Likud and another from Blue and White, all of the divisions could have been resolved in light of the sensitive security situation and the fear of an economic crisis.

But on Nov. 15, the negotiations collapsed. According to Blue and White’s version, Netanyahu retreated from several of the agreements, especially regarding the date he would declare incapacity. He demanded to serve as prime minister until the beginning of his trial, which could take place in a year — that is, serving even under indictment. Blue and White refused and asked the president to clarify the incapacity plan. Rivlin determined that the incapacity period would start at the official date of the submission of the indictment to the court — that is, within a month or two.

In the internal debate within Blue and White, Lapid said Netanyahu would not accept this plan, and even if he would he should not be trusted because he would try to arrange immunity for himself. When Blue and White sent a demand to Netanyahu to agree to forgo immunity, they didn’t receive an unequivocal response.

Thus, on Nov. 19 we went back to the starting point. Al-Monitor was informed that when Netanyahu and his staff met with Rivlin, the prime minister declared that he demands to serve in the role for a year until his trial actually starts. When Gantz came to the president and heard this, it was clear to him that he couldn’t convince Lapid to go along with this.

What now? A senior Likud member confirmed in conversation with Al-Monitor that there were overtures to parties that were not within the right-wing Ultra-Orthodox bloc to support immunity for Netanyahu, meaning Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu in particular. But in a party meeting on Nov. 25, Liberman hinted that he would oppose immunity. Thus, it’s fairly certain that Israel is heading toward an election, although Aryeh Deri of the Shas Party and Ayelet Shaked of the New Right party are still trying to mediate between the Likud and Blue and White.

Deri said Nov. 26 that a third election would be an act of suicide in light of big and complex security challenges. Deri is working to convince the leaders of Blue and White that this situation demands a difficult move of parting from Yair Lapid, without whom — in his opinion — it would be easier to form a unity government. It’s not clear what Deri is promising Blue and White in Netanyahu’s name, but given its leaders’ lack of faith in the prime minister, Deri’s suggestions are likely to be rejected.

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