Netanyahu-Gantz talks stall again

What happened: Coalition talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chair Benny Gantz stalled again in recent days amidst differences over judicial appointments and legal guarantees for Netanyahu against a possible Supreme Court disqualification.

  • Gantz’s mandate to form a government expired late Wednesday night after a two-day extension granted by President Reuven Rivlin. As of yesterday the task of forming a government moved to the Knesset, wherein any MK can (theoretically) gain 61 signatures in a bid to seat a government.
  • If after 21 days no parliamentarian is able to form a government then the Knesset will automatically disperse ahead of the country’s fourth election in less than 18 months.
  • Likud and Blue and White negotiating teams continued talks yesterday and today, in a bid, as a joint statement read, to reach an “agreement toward the establishment of a national unity government.”
  • Gantz rejected an invitation from Netanyahu to meet last night. Sources close to Gantz told Yediot Ahronot that: “The negotiations are stuck. The point of meeting was in order to sign an agreement on forming a government, not in order to procrastinate.”
  • Barring any progress, Gantz – as Knesset speaker – yesterday for the first time threatened to reactivate “a fully operational” Knesset beginning next Monday. Most analysts viewed this as a veiled warning regarding passage of so-called “anti-Netanyahu” legislation disqualifying an indicted MK from forming a government in future.
  • Opposition leaders Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid-Telem) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu), who are likely to support such a move, yesterday floated their own ideas regarding “freezing” the current political situation for 6 months due to the coronavirus crisis and allowing a caretaker government to govern in the interim.

Context: The disagreements over how judges are appointed – in particular Supreme Court justices – as well as guarantees against the Supreme Court disqualifying Netanyahu, are both tied to the Prime Minister’s corruption indictments.

  • Netanyahu’s trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust is set to begin in late May, after the original start date last month was delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
  • It remains unclear whether Gantz and his allies have the requisite time – by next week, some 17 days before the Knesset disperses – to pass legislation barring Netanyahu from forming a government in future.
  • It is also unclear, politically and ethically, whether such legislation will stand given Gantz’s willingness to let Netanyahu continue as Prime Minster (and after 18 months, serve as Deputy Prime Minister) in any national emergency government.
  • The key question remains whether Netanyahu is genuinely seeking a power-sharing arrangement with Gantz, or whether he is simply running out the legislative clock until new elections are triggered.
  • Recent polls have shown a commanding lead for Likud in particular, and a majority for Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc of parties. This also explains the “freeze” proposals by Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman, although such a move may not hold up against legal challenges in front of the Supreme Court.

Looking ahead: The coming three days will likely indicate whether Israel is heading to a coalition deal and new government, or whether a fourth election is in the offing.

  • Likud and Blue and White have been negotiating intensively and are thought to be near agreement – although significant legal gaps, outlined above, remain.
  • With the country perhaps beginning to come out of the coronavirus “emergency” that justified a Netanyahu-Gantz “emergency government,” the political dynamics may shift in tandem with the updates regarding the economy and health system.

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