As Prospects for Unity Government Fade, Gantz and Netanyahu Hold Late-night Meeting

Gantz has until midnight Wednesday before the mandate, given to him by the president to form a government, expires

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Benny Gantz at an the memorial for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, November 10, 2019.
Benny Gantz at an the memorial for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, November 10, 2019. Credit: Heidi Levine,AP

Negotiators for Likud and Kahol Lavan were pessimistic Tuesday that the late-night meeting between their leaders would lead to a breakthrough on establishing a unity government.

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz has until midnight Wednesday before the mandate, given to him by the president to form a government, expires.

Earlier in the day, President Reuven Rivlin met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an effort to advance the negotiations on a unity government. At that meeting, in a clear jab at Netanyahu, he also denounced rhetorical attacks on Arab Knesset members.

The late-night meeting between Netanyahu and Gantz, which followed a meeting Tuesday afternoon between the parties’ negotiators, created a stir in the media. But sources in both Gantz’s Kahol Lavan and Netanyahu’s Likud party said there has so far been no progress on either of the two main disputes.

The ultra-Orthodox parties haven’t offered any compromises on issues of religion and state such as conversions, Shabbat and drafting yeshiva students. And on the issue of how a rotation government should function, including who should be prime minister first, both Netanyahu and Gantz are digging in their heels.

Likud has refused to even enter detailed discussions on this issue unless Kahol Lavan publicly announces that it accepts Rivlin’s proposal, under which Netanyahu would serve first. Gantz refuses to do so for fear that such an announcement still wouldn’t lead to a deal on a unity government, but would drive away voters whom he needs if no government is formed and a third election is called.

Gantz also fears that Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman may ultimately join a narrow government led by Netanyahu if a third election seems unavoidable in any other way. Such a government would consist exclusively of rightist and ultra-Orthodox parties.

But Gantz’s partner in Kahol Lavan’s leadership, Yair Lapid, is confident that Lieberman won’t join a narrow government reliant on the ultra-Orthodox, something he has repeatedly refused to do – most recently on Monday, when he termed a narrow government a “disaster” and said he would only support a unity government.

Tuesday morning, Netanyahu and Lieberman met for the second time in two days, after which they issued a statement very similar to the one they issued on Monday: “It was a good, businesslike meeting, and both of them will continue their efforts to form a unity government.”

Rivlin met with Netanyahu and the Likud’s negotiators to be briefed on their efforts to form a unity government and urge them to try harder. He stressed that Israel currently needs as broad a government as possible.

He also denounced recent verbal attacks on Arab MKs and the Arab community as a whole. Though he didn’t mention Netanyahu by name, his remarks were clearly aimed at the prime minister, who has repeatedly attacked the Arab parties’ Joint List in recent days. Netanyahu has said that a minority government supported by the Joint List would be a “real danger to Israel” and that Joint List members “want to destroy the country.”

“Statements that have been made about the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities and their Knesset representatives undermine the legitimacy of these communities and deepen the already existing rift,” Rivlin said. “I ask everyone to whom the state of Israel is dear to stop these ugly statements once and for all.

“A portrayal of all elected Arab representatives as an existential threat to Israel or a fifth column must be vehemently denounced,” he continued. “We live as sovereigns in our own land, in a Jewish and democratic state of Israel, and we must ensure equal rights and a dignified, substantive conversation with all Israeli citizens.”

Rivlin acknowledged that Arab MKs sometimes say things about Israel, and especially Israeli soldiers, that he considers unacceptable. Nevertheless, he said, that doesn’t justify treating them as a fifth column or an existential threat.

Earlier on Tuesday, Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party also pushed back against such rhetorical attacks, by publicly thanking MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) for “the constant cooperation between us.” Rivlin praised Gafni’s statement in his own remarks.

Gantz’s mandate to form a government ends Wednesday night. But even after that, the parties will have another 21 days in which they can try to form a unity government, so the final deadline is still far away.