As Rivlin concludes talks with parties, Netanyahu wins 55 backers to Gantz’s 54
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As Rivlin concludes talks with parties, Netanyahu wins 55 backers to Gantz’s 54

President set to make decision within days on whom to task with forming a government, after neither candidate secures majority

This combination picture created on September 18, 2019 shows, Benny Gantz (R), leader of the Blue and White political alliance, waving to supporters in Tel Aviv early on September 18, 2019, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing supporters at his Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv early on September 18, 2019. (Emmanuel Dunand and Menahem Kahana / AFP)
This combination picture created on September 18, 2019 shows, Benny Gantz (R), leader of the Blue and White political alliance, waving to supporters in Tel Aviv early on September 18, 2019, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing supporters at his Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv early on September 18, 2019. (Emmanuel Dunand and Menahem Kahana / AFP)

President Reuven Rivlin on Monday ended his round of consultations with representatives of all the Knesset parties ahead of his decision on whom to task with forming the next government, with no candidate securing the backing of the necessary 61-strong majority needed for a governing coalition.

After the final two parties that Rivlin consulted with, the center-left Labor-Gesher and left-wing Democratic Camp, recommended Benny Gantz as expected, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the support of 55 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset to Gantz’s 54. That seemingly gives the incumbent leader a slight edge over his rival, although Gantz’s Blue and White party is bigger than Netanyahu’s Likud.

Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party is in the kingmaker position with its eight seats, having refrained from recommending either candidate. The three-member Arab faction Balad within the Joint List also opted to back neither Netanyahu nor Gantz.

Rivlin is expected to try to force a unity government comprising Likud and Blue and White, although significant disputes remain as to who would be prime minister and what other parties would be members of such a coalition. He is expected to make a decision later this week or early next week.

Shortly after finishing his round of discussions with parties, Rivlin invited both Netanyahu and Gantz for a meeting at his office at 6:30 p.m. Monday, which both men said they would attend.

Netanyahu called for a unity government at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, saying unity was “the order of the hour” and “the clear order the public has given in this election.”

“The only government that can be formed is a broad unity government between [me and Gantz],” he said. “The only way to reach such a government is to sit down and talk. We must reach unity, without disqualifications, without boycotts. With a hand reached out for genuine national reconciliation. If we speak with an open mind and heart, we can form a good and broad government for Israel. This is what the people expect of us.”

Earlier, the president met the leaders of the four smallest parties in the Knesset, a day after beginning his round of consultations with representatives of all newly elected Knesset parties.

After the right-wing Yamina party and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party both recommended Netanyahu, Labor-Gesher party leader Amir Peretz insisted to Rivlin during his meeting that he would not negotiate with the premier if the latter is tasked with forming the government.

Orly Levy-Abekasis (R) and Amir Peretz (L) of the Labor-Gesher party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We promised not to negotiate with Netanyahu and we promised not to join a government headed by him,” Peretz said. “We are not boycotting Likud, but we are absolutely not having talks or reaching any agreement that Netanyahu is prime minister. It is time for this change to happen so that Israeli society can heal, and Likud should also do some soul-searching.

“It is time to replace the leadership in Israel,” he added. “For more than a decade there has been irresponsibility on social issues and we will recommend Benny Gantz because the nation is in need of stability.”

After that, the last party, the left-wing Democratic Camp, met Rivlin and likewise recommended Gantz, lashing out at Netanyahu.

“The continued rule of Benjamin Netanyahu is endangering Israeli democracy,” its leader, Nitzan Horowitz, told the president. “Anyone who criticizes him is branded an enemy, the investigations against him have caused him to launch an attack against law enforcement authorities and the courts. We have no doubt that Netanyahu is unworthy of forming a government, he is dangerous.”

As with Sunday’s consultations, the meetings were broadcast live to the public.

Members of the Democratic Camp party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

As it stands, neither Likud nor Blue and White have a path to a coalition without the other. In last Tuesday’s election, Blue and White emerged as the larger party, according to almost-final results, at 33 seats, while Likud won 31. Netanyahu heads a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc of 55 MKs. Gantz heads a bloc of 44 centrist and left-wing MKs, with another 10 from the predominantly Arab Joint List recommending Gantz as prime minister in a rare move on Sunday.

Rivlin began his consultations with political parties on Sunday, meeting with the five largest parties to receive their recommendations on the candidate who should be tasked with assembling the next coalition.

During Sunday’s talks, Blue and White and the Joint List backed Gantz, Likud and Shas nominated Netanyahu, and Yisrael Beytenu refrained from endorsing either candidate.

Sources in Blue and White told Hebrew-language media on Sunday night that they would prefer to pass the buck and take their shot after Netanyahu tries — and fails — to build the next government. Likud has expressed similar willingness to have Gantz try first and fail.

President Reuven Rivlin during a meeting with Shas party members at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The president has the power to appoint one of the elected 120 MKs as the next potential prime minister of Israel. The designated premier must then attempt to cobble together a coalition that wins the support of a majority of Knesset members. Once a candidate is chosen by the president, that individual has 28 days to present a coalition to the new Knesset and win a vote of confidence. The president is allowed to extend that period by up to 14 days.

If the candidate fails, the second most likely candidate is usually given a shot at forming a coalition. Should the second candidate fail, new elections are called, unless any of the 120 MKs musters the support of 61 lawmakers backing their leadership.

Rivlin has wide discretion with his decision, and it is entirely within his purview to try and force a unity government that includes both Likud and Blue and White. On Sunday, a senior member of the President’s Residence said Rivlin would float options not yet heard by the public.

Netanyahu has urged Gantz to join him in a national unity government under Netanyahu’s leadership that includes all members of his religious right-wing bloc. The Blue and White leader rebuffed the offer, noting his party received more seats and should therefore lead such a coalition.

Gantz has insisted that Netanyahu, who is facing a looming criminal indictment, relinquish the premiership as a condition for a Blue and White-Likud alliance. Blue and White has also vowed to form a government without the ultra-Orthodox and “extremists.”

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