Netanyahu, Gantz Agree on West Bank Annexation Proposal as Unity Deal Nears

After lengthy meeting, Gantz's Kahol Lavan says talks were halted over proposed changes to appointment of judges

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel November 17, 2019, and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, Israel November 20, 2019
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel November 17, 2019, and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, Israel November 20, 2019Credit: Nir Elias/ REUTERS

At a meeeting Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz agreed on the terms regarding how Israel would purse possible annexation of portions of the West Bank by a government led by their two parties. Agreement on the issue appeared to almost completely clear the way for a unity government, but later Monday, Kahol Lavan announced that there was new disagreement regarding the appointment of judges.

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Gantz and Netanyahu, until recently political rivals who faced off in Israel's March 2 election, agreed that Netanyahu would be able to bring a proposal for annexing parts of the West Bank to a cabinet vote this summer, but only if the United States backs the move and if it is done in coordination with other international players.

Once approved by the cabinet, a proposal to apply Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank would also require approval by the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and then the full Knesset. 

In a possible hitch in the coalition talks, Gantz's party issued a statement later on Monday saying negotiations were put on hold "after agreements had been reached on all issues," as a result of request from Likud to discuss changes to the process of appointment of  judges, a change that Kahol Lavan said would "harm democracy."

The lengthy meeting between Gantz and Netanyahu took place at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, but because Netanyahu is still under quarantine after coming in contact with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who tested positive for the coronavirus, Gantz stood on the patio of the residence while Netanyahu remained in his study. The two leaders shouted to each other from a safe distance.

They agreed that senior Likud lawmaker Yariv Levin would be nominated as the new Knesset speaker. It is not yet clear what job would be given to former Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who is also affiliated with Likud and had hoped to the return to the post. Edelstein has been mooted as a possible foreign minister, but Kahol Lavan hasn't yet decided whether it wants the Foreign Ministry or the Education Ministry in the proposed cabinet.

Kahol Lavan's Avi Nissenkorn would be appointed justice minister, but Netanyahu and Gantz agreed that senior appointments in the judicial system would have to be coordinated between both parties.

The new government is only expected to be sworn in after the Passover holiday, which ends a week from Thursday.

Negotiations yet to come

Once Netanyahu and Gantz finalize their agreement, Netanyahu will have to meet with the right-wing Yamina slate to decide which cabinet posts it would get, in addition to assigning posts to members of his own Likud party. Neither of these would be easy tasks, however, since some current ministers won’t be included in the new cabinet. 

Yamina said Monday that “Netanyahu capitulated completely to Kahol Lavan” when it comes to the justice system. “We urge Netanyahu to come to his senses and insist on the right-wing bloc’s red lines.” 

Yamina also alleged that the wording in the proposed coalition agreement on applying sovereignty to parts of the West Bank is “vague” and “doesn’t say anything, and even worse, it postpones sovereignty until too close to the U.S. elections, which casts a heavy shadow over the possibility of getting American consent for the move.”

David Elhayani, the chairman of the Yesha Council of West Bank settlements, said he had spoken to Netanyahu, who promised that annexation would occur in the coming months. “I thank the prime minister for calling and making it clear that he won’t let the opportunity for sovereignty to slip by, and I trust that he is determined to advance this matter in the coming months,” he said.

For its part, Peace Now, which opposes the presence of West Bank settlements, demanded that Gantz and Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz condition their entry into the government on getting veto power over any plan to unilaterally annex territory. “Dealing with the coronavirus can’t pave the way for the messianic right’s caprices,” the organization’s executive director, Shaqued Morag, said. “You must not compromise and be signatories to Israel’s destruction as a Jewish and democratic” state.

A Kahol Lavan-Labor Party merger

Also on Monday, Gantz and Peretz announced that they would work to unite their parties into a single Knesset faction. As a first stage, the parties would coordinate their activities in parliament, to be followed later by “political cooperation and preparation for future elections,” they said in a statement. The negotiations will be conducted by Nissenkorn and Labor MK Itzik Shmuli. 

Peretz later told Haaretz that joining forces with Kahol Lavan was a natural move for Labor, which he said he viewed as “a very important process.” Once the two parties are fully merged, he explained, “we will be one large party that can provide solutions for many segments of society. Our ability to exert influence in the Knesset will be much greater.”

He promised that Labor would not join a Netanyahu government without Kahol Lavan if the negotiations between Gantz and Netanyahu fall through. 

For his part, another Labor Party official said joining forces with Kahol Lavan would “revive the Labor Party.” His party, he added, had consented to the language on annexation in the emerging agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan.

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