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Gantz, Netanyahu say ‘significant progress’ achieved toward unity government, amid dispute over key portfolios

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new political partner, Member of Knesset (MK) Benny Gantz are reporting advancement in their negotiations to form a successful coalition.

According to a joint message to TV7 from the Likud and Blue and White factions, “significant progress” was achieved during the latest meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Blue and White Chairman, Lt.-Gen. (res.) MK Benny Gantz, and Lt.-Gen. (res.) MK Gabi Ashkenazi. The talks were described as being “aimed at establishing a national emergency government to deal with the corona crisis and the additional challenges facing the State of Israel.”

The statement added that “an additional meeting will be held in order to come to a finalized agreement.”

In a stunning development, Gantz announced his decision to join his former rival Netanyahu in a unity government last Thursday. Even though both leaders had previously declared willingness to form such a union, the move was unexpected as Gantz had continuously maintained he would not sit in a government with a premier facing criminal prosecution. The first hearing for Netanyahu, who has been indicted on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud, is slated to open 24 May.

In a post on his Facebook page on Friday 27 March, Gantz said he was ” more at peace today than ever.. because I did what my nation needs.” The former IDF Chief of Staff explained that he stepped toward forming a unity government with Netanyahu’s Likud party because “Israel is in a state of emergency” due to the coronavirus, and that “this is the time for leaders to choose what is right and put the lingering issues and personal scores aside.” Moreover, he insisted that “Gabi (Ashkenazi) and I, along with other partners, have decided that we aren’t going to drag Israel to elections at this time of emergency — which will be with us for a long time, and whose repercussions are going to be long-term.

Gantz had been formally tasked by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to form a successful coalition following the 2 March national elections, which had been the third, unprecedented round in just 11 months after none of the major parties were able to form governments in the wake of two previous 2019 ballots.

The 33-member centrist Blue and White party has now splintered. The 13-month-old faction was a political alliance Gantz’ Israel Resilience faction, Yesh Atid led by MK Yair Lapid and the Telem party, headed by former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon. Gantz told “my friends at Yesh Atid and Telem – my door is open to you, now and in the future,” and wrote that “I embrace the people who feel angry. I have love for the people who feel disappointed. I respect everyone. And I personally pledge to you: I will use every means to ensure that our attitude and way prevail. You’ve seen us do the seemingly impossible in the past, and that’s what will happen this time too. Everyone is talking about campaign promises, but there is one promise that I will never break: Israel comes before everything else.”

The newly-formed Knesset Arrangements Committee approved the name ‘Blue and White’ for the parliamentary faction of 17 MKs Gantz will continue to head, while a new ‘Derekh Eretz’ faction founded by former Blue and White members,  MK Yoaz Hendel and MK Tzvi Hauser, will operate as a single parliamentary faction, under Gantz’ leadership. Lapid and Ya’alon, who remain unified as ‘Yesh Atid-Telem,’ released a statement vowing to “will keep a watchful eye over the work of this government and create a real alternative for the State of Israel.”

Gantz was elected Knesset Speaker the day of his surprise move, but he is expected to relinquish that position for a ministerial post upon the formation of the next government. Most critical is the rotation agreement for the premiership. A deal has reportedly been set that Netanyahu will remain Prime Minister until September 2021, while Gantz jointly serves as Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister before becoming Prime Minister himself. It is unknown what role Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Premier, would assume. Much is dependent on the outcome of his trial, as Israeli law prevents the appointment of anyone under indictment from being appointed to a Cabinet position.

Rumors abound over the potential assignment of other portfolios. Netanyahu is said to be arguing with Gantz over which of their allies would become Justice Minister – who could play critical role in Netanyahu’s political future by facilitating legislation to forbid assumption of the premiership by anyone under indictment.

There is also a reported dispute over the Health Ministry, as it struggles to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak. Netanyahu insists the post remain filled by MK Yaakov Litzman, in order to preserve his alliance with Litzman’s United Torah Judaism party. Gantz, however, stands alongside many prominent physicians, who are demanding the Health Minister should be a medical professional.

Local media reports Gantz wants to see Blue and White’s Ashkenazi be appointed as Foreign Minister, while Netanyahu wants Likud’s recently-resigned Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in the position if he is not reelected to his former role.