'Fake Negotiations': Netanyahu, Gantz's Parties Trade Blame Over Failed Unity Talks

Likud says talks were scuttled by Kahol Lavan’s Lapid, Ya’alon, but a party official says 'every time we were getting closer, Likud raised claims designed to make us say no'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Likud officials say the party’s grand-coalition talks with Kahol Lavan were nearly completed on the main issues but were torpedoed by senior legislators in Benny Gantz’s party, especially Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon.

According to the officials, the parties’ negotiating teams were near agreement on who would head the government first in a rotation (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), when exactly Netanyahu would suspend himself if indicted in the corruption cases against him (within six months to a year), and whether Netanyahu's right-wing bloc would be dismantled (no). The talks didn’t address the unity government’s agenda.

“It’s no coincidence that both parties’ briefings said there was progress. That’s the true situation,” a source involved in the discussions told Haaretz. “The gaps between us aren’t great. It’s true we haven’t agreed on everything, but we assessed that in a meeting between Gantz and Netanyahu they’d be able to resolve what remained.”

Kahol Lavan officials had a completely different take. “It was fake negotiations, a conversation with nothing to it,” one official said. “Every time we felt that the sides were getting closer, Likud raised more claims designed to make us tell them no.”

He added: “The whole time, the basis for our discussion was that Benny would be first in the rotation.”

Netanyahu and Gantz both failed to form a governing coalition. What happens now?

Kahol Lavan officials did not totally deny Likud’s claims that no one objected to bringing the right-wing bloc into the coalition. As the official above put it, “We didn’t rule anyone out. We told the Likud representatives that we’d agree to the basic principles and that they could bring in the representatives of their bloc on the basis of these basic principles. But we insisted on conducting direct talks with Likud and not with the bloc,” and this caused the main problems.

As for when Netanyahu would declare himself incapacitated, the official said Kahol Lavan asked that Netanyahu suspend himself when an indictment was filed against him. “They weren’t willing to hear about it.”

A Likud source familiar with the talks said that while Kahol Lavan officials publicly called for the breakup of the right-wing bloc and demanded that Gantz be prime minister first, in the negotiating rooms the understanding was exactly the opposite.

“It was clear that Netanyahu would be first; they didn’t dispute this. The main question was how long he’d continue to hold the position if he was indicted. To us it was clear that we were talking about a period of no longer than a year,” the Likud source said.

“They accepted that he couldn’t continue in the post for less than half a year, because if we went to an election now, Netanyahu would be prime minister for another seven months in any case. Kahol Lavan agreed that the incapacity couldn’t be immediate but after a certain period, and the gaps between us on the issue were small.”

The teams also discussed how to assure that Netanyahu would allow the rotation with Gantz and not try to dissolve the government and opt for an election instead. Gantz is very suspicious of Netanyahu on this issue. Likud also feared that the rotation plan suggested by President Reuven Rivlin – the first year Netanyahu, then two years of Gantz and one year of Netanyahu – wouldn’t happen because of Kahol Lavan’s political interests.

“Everyone understands that the last period of the rotation won’t happen,” a Likud source said. “From Gantz’s perspective, there’s no political logic in letting Bibi come back to be prime minister after him, and it’s clear to us that he’d prefer to drag the system into an election from the position of prime minister and not a minister in a government led by Netanyahu.”

Regarding the right-wing bloc, “the bottom line was that Kahol Lavan didn’t ask us to give up the bloc,” a source involved in the talks said. “They understood that we wouldn’t agree to this and that it was pathetic, especially after they offered each of these parties the world to defect from the bloc and link up with them” – and the parties refused.

Likud believes that even if Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman is placated and agrees to join a right-wing government, Netanyahu prefers a unity government or an election.

“Our working assumption is that a narrow government with both Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox is a complicated government that’s best avoided,” said a source close to Netanyahu. “It would be hard to reconcile their principles and budget demands. We have to remember that all this is happening amid dramatic budget cuts and the diversion of huge sums to defense. It would be a very problematic coalition.”

But Likud believes that its chances of forming a government without Kahol Lavan after a new election would be slim, with Gantz’s chance of forming a center-left government not very great either.

“To form a government we’d have to win six more seats in the election. I don’t know if we have a chance to achieve such a result,” a party source said. “But for Benny Gantz to form a government with the [Arab] Joint List and without Lieberman, he’d need four to eight additional seats, and they surely won’t achieve that. In the end, after the election, we’ll have the same situation and the same arguments. Even if Likud would lose votes from the knitted skullcaps [religious-Zionist voters], it wouldn’t change the balance between the blocs.”

Likud is preparing for a scenario where the High Court of Justice might adopt a legal interpretation under which Netanyahu could serve as prime minister but couldn’t be awarded the mandate to form a government if he is under indictment.

However, a party source was skeptical that the court would forbid Netanyahu to serve as prime minister of a caretaker government while under indictment, because the law, which lets a sitting prime minister serve while under indictment, doesn’t address the issue of an interim prime minister.