President Reuven Rivlin brought together Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and the negotiating teams for both Likud and Blue and White at the President's Residence on Sunday night in an effort to form a unity government to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The meeting ended after an hour and a half with both sides promising to continue meeting and Rivlin’s office saying he had “encouraged them to deepen their connection.”
Sources close to the president said he was open to both a temporary emergency government and a four-year unity government. Among the options to be discussed was a government that would first be led by Netanyahu for a year, followed by Gantz for two years and then Netanyahu again or whoever would lead Likud at that time.
"The public expects to see unity as soon as possible," Rivlin said in an earlier meeting with Likud representatives. "No one wants a fourth election."
Rivlin's invitation to Netanyahu and Gantz came after presidential consultations at the President's Residence in which Gantz received a majority of recommendations from the 61 MKs of Blue and White, the Joint List, Labor-Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu. After the consultations, Rivlin's office initially said he would officially give Gantz the mandate to form a government on Monday afternoon, but then he invited Netanyahu and Gantz to meet. The deadline for Rivlin to grant a mandate to form a government is Tuesday at midnight.
Gantz does not have a clear path to forming a government because multiple MKs in his own party oppose forming a minority government backed by the Joint List of Arab parties, which is the Blue and White’s only option for a narrow, center-left coalition. Nevertheless, Blue and White announced its intentions to press ahead with efforts to remove current Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) and vote in its own candidate, Meir Cohen.
This would give Blue and White vital control over the formation of Knesset committees and numerous procedural matters in the legislature. Edelstein vowed however that he would not allow a vote to replace him to be held in the Knesset plenum.
“Hasty political processes such as electing a new Knesset speaker are designed to shut down the possibility of unity that the people want,” Edelstein said. "I will not enable a process that breaks conventions and is designed to enable underhanded opportunism in the legislature.”
Blue and White appealed Edelstein's decision to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to determine whether Edelstein could block the vote, despite there being 61 MKs ready to remove him from office.
MK Yair Lapid, who is no. 2 in Blue and White, denounced Edelstein’s decision, saying it was in keeping with the announcement in the middle of the night to put the court system in a state of emergency to postpone Netanyahu’s trial.
“Edelstein can no longer claim to the world that he is statesmanlike," Lapid said. "Every minute that the Knesset is not overseeing the government represents a huge failure to deal with the coronavirus crisis and a massive blow to democracy.”
Due to the pandemic, the 23rd Knesset will be sworn in with 40 rounds of three MKs at a time on Monday, starting with Edelstein, Netanyahu and Gantz. Blue and White MK Yael German will not be sworn in and will retire from politics due to health reasons.
Gantz dismissed earlier statements by Netanyahu in favor of a unity government.
"Netanyahu, let's not manipulate the public," Gantz wrote. "One who wants unity does not have his trial postponed at 1 a.m. and does not send a framework for an emergency unity government to the press instead of sending a negotiating team to a meeting. When you will be serious, we will speak."
According to the proposal that Netanyahu said he sent Gantz, the government would last six months and the portfolios would be distributed equally. He would not be able to fire Blue and White ministers and Blue and White would not be able to vote no-confidence in the government.
Netanyahu said he was also ready to discuss a unity government with a rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office. But he said that in such a government, he would have to be prime minister the first two years while Gantz served as vice prime minister.
After the September election, the rotation considered had Netanyahu only serving as prime minister for five or six months. Speculation had been that because the Likud did better in the March election, Netanyahu could ask to stay in office for a year. Blue and White sources said joining a government led by Netanyahu for two years was a non-starter.
Overnight, there were fights inside Blue and White, with Gantz and MK Gabi Ashkenazi reportedly willing to enter a Netanyahu-led government and MKs Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya'alon strongly against it. Netanyahu spoke to Ashkenazi, hoping to use him to sell his proposals to his fellow Blue and White leaders.But Ashkenazi released a statement on Sunday that "Netanyahu is not aiming for unity and true partnership, and not for an emergency government." He said the leadership of Blue and White is unified and it's only consideration would be the good of Israeli citizens
Netanyahu issued another statement on Sunday morning calling upon Gantz to join the government, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“To face the national and international emergency situation, we must join forces and form a strong and stable government that can pass a budget and make difficult decisions,” Netanyahu wrote.
Netanyahu also called on Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Labor chairman Amir Peretz to join the government.
Liberman mocked the proposal on social media, saying "I know Netanyahu, and there is nothing behind his calls for unity except for playing the blame game." Liberman found himself joining his nemesis, Joint List head Ayman Odeh, in recommending Gantz to form the government.
Odeh told Rivlin his party was backing Gantz "out of hatred for Haman," using a term from last week's Purim holiday to describe Netanyahu.
"If Gantz or Netanyahu go to a unity government or an emergency government, we will oppose it," Odeh said. "But we will recommend Gantz to form the government if he tries to form a center-left government."
After the September election, 10 of the 13 Joint List MKs recommended Gantz, and the three MKs of the Joint List's Balad Party did not recommend anyone. This time, Balad joined the other three parties in the Joint List in recommending Gantz.
Balad head Mtanes Shehadeh told Rivlin that his party also did not want to back anyone this time but the party decided that the unity of the list was more important.
"We have to be united, and it is no secret that we also want to replace Netanyahu," Shehadeh said. "We had to give whatever small chance there is for change."
Usually a festive two-day event brimming with television and radio crews, photographers, print and digital media journalists, the consultation period was devoid of media personnel but rather live-streamed for the sake of transparency and reduced from two days to one as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.