Not just Lapid: Obstacles abound in unity talks failure

Netanyahu blames Lapid but his own bad reputation isn't helping a unity deal be reached

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it look so simple when he addressed the country and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in two TV interviews on Saturday night.
He said Likud and Blue and White had already completed their coalition talks and reached an agreement on a national-unity government in which he and then Gantz would each serve for a year and a half.
Likud would start out with the posts of prime minister, finance minister and Knesset speaker, and Blue and White would start with a deputy prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister, and then switch after a year and a half.
"I will leave office on the agreed date," Netanyahu said in a message to Gantz. "There will be no shticks and tricks. Millions of Israelis are waiting for us."
So why didn’t they both just sign the deal on Sunday, cancel their court cases and form a government by the time the Knesset came back at 4 p.m. on Monday?
Netanyahu already gave his answer on Saturday night when he put all the blame on Gantz’s number two, Yair Lapid. It makes sense to blame Lapid, because he has ruled out sitting under Netanyahu, he controls a third of Blue and White’s MKs and because the religious parties in Netanyahu’s bloc love to hate him.
Yet does Lapid really have that much power over Gantz? Why doesn’t the former IDF chief just bite the bullet, shoot his deputy and use the coronavirus as an excuse and join the government?
The first answer is that he has not used all his leverage yet while he has the mandate to form a government. Gantz does not have much leverage, because his 61-MK majority is really only 59, thanks to the rebellion of Blue and White MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel.
But it appears that Gantz can still try to form Knesset committees, elect a Knesset speaker from his party and pass laws that could prevent Netanyahu from forming a government and running in the next election, due to his indictments.
If he did not even try to use his only ammunition, Gantz could not have gone back to his “anyone but Bibi” voters.
The second answer is Netanyahu’s reputation for broken promises. Nearly everyone he has ever made a political deal with could testify to that, from Tzipi Livni to Shaul Mofaz to Moshe Feiglin to plenty of politicians inside his Likud Party.
The deal negotiated over the past week between Likud and Blue and White reportedly includes the same guarantees as there were when a unity government was almost reached after the September election.
The parties from Netanyahu’s bloc would commit to resign if Netanyahu doesn’t quit after a year in a half. Both Netanyahu and Gantz would be sworn in at the beginning, so it would be automatic that Gantz would take over. If Netanyahu dispersed the Knesset, Gantz would automatically become prime minister of a caretaker government.
But when Netanyahu negotiated with Livni and her fellow Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog in May 2016, the guarantees were even stronger. The guarantors of the deal were US secretary of state John Kerry, Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu ended up making a deal with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman instead. Liberman now trusts Netanyahu so much that he prefers a government backed by Joint List leader Ayman Odeh.
A final reason is Netanyahu’s style of negotiations. No leader likes being talked to on TV instead of behind closed doors.
It is no wonder that while Lapid’s response to Netanyahu was to call him a liar, Gantz’s reaction was not that the offer was not true but that he does not like leaks and ultimatums.
Asked if there was any possibility of flexibility in Blue and White to keep the party together if Gantz joined a government led initially by Netanyahu, a Blue and White source explained why it was more complicated than the prime minister made it look.
"Netanyahu doesn't want unity,” the source said. “He's been busy undermining democracy and making threats instead of seriously working towards unity. Benny Gantz has been given the mandate to form a government and everyone is united in the effort to make that happen."