While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz have agreed to work towards the formation of an emergency unity government to end a bitter political standoff and respond effectively to the coronavirus crisis, negotiations on political appointments as well as government policies are proving difficult.
Several key issues are now placing the signing of a unity agreement in doubt, with a member of Netanyahu’s negotiating team telling JNS that “a unity government is important, but not at all costs.”
The first problem relates to the U.S. Peace to Prosperity vision. Netanyahu is eager to advance the first phase of the plan, which permits Israel to apply formal sovereignty over disputed territories in Judea and Samaria, believing that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Gantz, on the other hand, is unwilling to advance any unilateral Israeli actions with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite telling President Donald Trump in a White House meeting that he would work to implement the peace vision if elected.
Israel Hayom reports senior Likud members have said “application Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria under the auspices of the Trump administration’s peace outline was ‘non-negotiable’.”
A second impediment is the assignment of senior government portfolios. As part of the agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz, the Blue and White Party chairman will serve as defense minister, often considered the highest-level job after prime minister. In addition, Gantz is demanding that the Justice Ministry portfolio be given to former labor union chief Avi Nissenkorn, a member of Gantz’s left-wing camp.
Netanyahu wants the post assigned to one of his right-wing allies as he seeks to reform the powers of Israel’s High Court and simultaneously assure that new laws will not be passed to bar a prime minister from serving while under indictment.
Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, of the right-wing Yamina Party, told JNS that “the handing over of the defense and justice ministries to the left means ideological enslavement to the left. It means the destruction of the entire justice ministry revolution and the regularization effort we have led in Judea and Samaria in recent years.”
Shaked said her party could not join a government which would undo the conservative agenda she advanced in the Justice Ministry.
A third challenge is the assignment of the next Knesset Speaker. Gantz is refusing to consent to Netanyahu’s demand that longtime Speaker Yuli Edelstein return to the post. Last week in a contentious political drama, the High Court of Justice ordered Edelstein to call for a vote for a new Speaker prior to the formation of a coalition government, per the wishes of Gantz’s left-wing bloc as well as a 15-seat Arab Joint List. Rather than hold the vote, which contravened the Knesset’s own bylaws, Edelstein resigned, insisting that the court did not have jurisdiction to involve itself in legislative procedures.
Gantz is now insisting that having refused to carry out a High Court ruling, Edelstein cannot return to the position — even if Edelstein believes his move was justified. Netanyahu believes Edelstein was correct in acting to prevent the court from interfering in the independent affairs of the Knesset.
Meanwhile, Channel 13 reports that Edelstein, who is No. 2 on the Likud Party list behind Netanyahu, has said he would “give up the Knesset Speaker position in return for the Foreign Minister portfolio.” The senior post is tentatively set to be given to Blue and White No. 2 Gabi Ashkenazi.
Similarly, Gantz is demanding that current Health Minister Ya’akov Litzman, chairman of the United Torah Judaism Party (UTJ), be replaced by a medical professional. Gantz blames Litzman for the deterioration of the Health Ministry which he has led for five years and is attacking the health system’s lack of preparedness for the coronavirus crisis.
Last week, a group of senior doctors submitted a letter to the government stating that the coronavirus pandemic “has exposed and caught the healthcare system at a low point from an organizational and operational point of view, which everyone had been aware of,” and adding that “it is right for a professional to be appointed to head the Health Ministry; a doctor with vast experience in Israeli healthcare.”
Netanyahu needs to hand at least one ministerial portfolio to UTJ, a key member of his right-wing bloc, and supports Litzman continuing in his current position.
The final challenge which both Netanyahu and Gantz face within their respective blocs relates to the division of the remaining ministry portfolios. In the past government Likud members held 16 portfolios. As part of the generous agreement with Gantz, Netanyahu agreed that half of the ministries would be given to Gantz’s much smaller bloc, leaving significantly fewer positions for Likud and the larger right-wing bloc
Defense Minister and chairman of the Yamina Party Naftali Bennett is demanding two ministries for his six-seat party, including one senior post. However, seemingly all of the high-profile positions which would appease Bennett are expected to be given to Blue and White as part of the unity deal.
Current reports suggest Bennett may be offered the lesser internal security portfolio which oversees the police, fire and rescue departments.
Meanwhile, Yamina is threatening to take its six seats into the opposition. Netanyahu does not want to see the defection of any right-wing parties from his bloc, as he believes the loyalty of smaller parties give him further leverage against Gantz.
Gantz, on the other hand, faces an opposite challenge: While the Blue and White chairman has demanded that his bloc receive the same number of portfolio assignments as Netanyahu’s bloc, his party is entering the government with only 17 MKs. If Gantz assigns 15 ministerial portfolios to Blue and White members, there will only be two remaining MKs who can reasonably remain active within the legislative branch. To free up some of its members to advance its legislative agenda, Blue and White may appoint professionals rather than politicians to key ministries.