‘Significant’ progress in Netanyahu-Gantz unity negotiations

Intense negotiations to form unity government resumed Sunday as each side battles for powerful cabinet positions, trying to sign agreement later in the day.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

There is “significant progress” in negotiations to form a government of national unity with the main players – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Resilience Party leader Benny Gantz – meeting again Sunday to try and ink a deal by the end of the day, Hebrew media reported.

After a marathon all-night meeting Saturday night, unnamed officials from the two sides said “significant understandings and progress” had been reached, but another meeting or two will be needed to finalize the division of power and assign cabinet positions in the new government, Ynet reported.

Gantz made a surprise decision Thursday to join an emergency unity government under Netanyahu as the nation faces economic and health tsunamis from the coronavirus pandemic. Netanyahu will be prime minister for 18 months and then hand the premiership to Gantz, an agreement the opposition leader had previously said he refused to make, but the crisis facing the country required him to unite with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party said it wants a government with 34 ministers, while Israel Resilience is satisfied with 30, the report said. Likud currently has 15 cabinet ministers, but other political parties needed in the coalition will drive that number down to only 10 and could create internal party friction.

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In order to smooth ruffled feathers of ministers who will lose their jobs, several of the current ministers are expected to receive ambassadorships, Kan Radio reported, with the possibility of Yuval Steinitz becoming ambassador in Washington and Ofer Akunis getting the job at the United Nations, while another minister will become ambassador in London.

With 120 members in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, a 30-member cabinet would mean one in every four parliamentarians would be a cabinet minister.

Members of Netanyahu’s right-wing block of allies and the two large Jewish religious parties also want to maintain their representation, with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism Party insisting he would not give up on his portfolio – one of the most prominent during the coronavirus crisis.

Under fire for having gone back on his word never to join a Netanyahu-led government, Gantz got a boost Sunday when Knesset member Penina Tamanu-Shata announced she was bolting the centrist Yesh Atid Party to join Gantz. In a bid to defeat Netanyahu in national elections, Gantz formed the Blue and White Party last year with Yesh Atid and the Telem Party, but failed to gain enough support to form a government.

“I chose that it is the time for unity,” said Tamanu-Shata, who may become the country’s first female cabinet minister of Ethiopian descent. “I am following my truth and reinforcing Gantz because he did a brave act in difficult circumstances.”