Gantz and Netanyahu squabble as gridlocked Israel set to miss government deadline

By Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem

A proposed unity government deal involving Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and opposition leader, Benny Gantz, appears to be in jeopardy as initial progress stalls and a deadline this week looks set to be missed.

The pair – who have battled for more than a year in three inconclusive elections – had both expressed a desire to come to an understanding as the country faces the coronavirus pandemic. Talks to join forces and end the crippling political deadlock appeared to be in the final stages. One power-sharing deal would see them rotate the role of leader over a four-year term.

However, last week Gantz’s party, Blue and White, said that, after an “all-round agreement” had been reached, Netanyahu’s Likud party suddenly resurrected old demands about judicial appointments. Likud countered that it was Gantz who backed away at the last minute.

Gantz’s deadline to form a coalition government will expire on Monday, though Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, may allow him two extra weeks. The president could equally hand the mandate to Netanyahu, although, like Gantz, he does not have the seats to form a majority.

Local media speculated that Netanyahu might have “torpedoed” the negotiations after polls showed his party could win a possible fourth election, which will be held if the stalemate continues.

Gantz took a significant risk last month when he went against senior members of his own party to abort attempts to push through legislation to end Netanyahu’s career in favour of restarting talks for a deal.

Blue and White had threatened to introduce term-limits for prime ministers, and a ban on them serving while under indictment. Both scenarios would have ended Netanyahu’s political career. He is Israel’s longest-serving leader and is fighting three major corruption cases, including on charges of bribery and fraud. Netanyahu denies all the allegations.

However, in a move that came as a surprise even to his allies, Gantz nominated himself and was elected speaker of parliament, apparently to shield Netanyahu from such bills.

The plot twist cost Gantz more than half his Knesset members, who broke away, but the former head of the army argued that it was necessary to keep the possibility of a unity government alive.

“These are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions. That’s why I intend to explore the formation of a national emergency government,” Gantz told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Israeli commentators, however, have suggested that Gantz, who entered politics less than two years ago, may have been too optimistic about Netanyahu, famed as a political magician, agreeing to share the top seat.

“Gantz is not at all built to deal with such phenomena,” Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz newspaper. “In his naivety, he decided in one quick moment to jump into bed with Netanyahu without guarantees – and in doing so he tore apart his party. He tried to play ‘fair’ against a competitor for whom such a principle arouses nothing but deep contempt.”