Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured his religious right-wing political partners Monday night that he would stick to his pact to negotiate as a bloc with them, after agreeing to launch unity talks with chief rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party.
At the same time, Gantz told his party members that he would not abandon his promise to the voters not to let Netanyahu remain prime minister, indicating the political gridlock which has left Israel without a government for months could persist.
Netanyahu last week had the Yamina, Shas and UTJ parties sign an agreement with his own Likud party to negotiate as a group, after elections that saw the right-wing and religious parties fail to garner enough support to form a coalition on their own. Gantz and his center-left partners also fell short of the needed 61 seats.
The prime minister on Monday met for the first time with Gantz, at the residence of President Reuven Rivlin, and agreed to begin talks aimed toward building a unity coalition. Rivlin invited them to return on Wednesday.
Following the talks with Gantz, which were initiated by Rivlin, Likud said Netanyahu spoke by phone with the heads of allied parties to update them on them meeting. According to a Likud statement, Netanyahu said he stressed to Gantz he was representing the “entire nationalist camp” and handling negotiations on behalf of all of them.
“I’m committed to what I promised you,” Netanyahu was quoted saying.
Gantz has insisted he head any unity government and ruled out sitting with Netanyahu due to his pending indictment on graft charges. In the final weeks of the election campaign, Gantz also vowed to form a “secular” government and rejected partnering with Shas and UTJ.
After leaving the President’s Residence, Gantz updated Blue and White leaders on his talks with Netanyahu, the centrist party said, and said he had told Netanyahu unity was not possible unless he stepped down as prime minister.
“In the meeting unity was talked about a lot,” Gantz said in a statement, emphasizing Blue and White would stick to its campaign promises.
“The public chose change. and we have no intention of giving up on leading [the coalition], on our values or on our natural partners along the way,” Gantz said in the party statement.
Blue and White sources were quoted by the Ynet news site saying Netanyahu’s attendance at the meeting was all an act and that he was maneuvering for a third round of elections in less than year.
Netanyahu “is being deceitful,” the sources were reported to say. “He is pulling with all [his] might for third elections because he still believes he’ll get 61 [seats].”
“He knows we won’t sit with [Yaakov] Litzman and [Bezalel] Smotrich,” added the sources, referring to the UTJ leader and a top Yamina lawmaker.
Netanyahu and Gantz met for over two hours at the President’s Residence, first with Rivlin and then alone, with talks reportedly centering around who would head a possible joint government. Rivlin returned to speak with two again before the meeting ended.
Rivlin was expected to propose a rotation agreement that would see the two party chiefs share the prime ministership, though agreement over the order of such a deal remained elusive.
As Gantz and Netanyahu met alone, Rivlin’s office said he had told Netanyahu and Gantz that Israelis do not want another election and the onus was now on them to overcome the gridlock.
“The responsibility for establishing a government falls on you, and the people expect you to find a solution and to prevent further elections, even if it comes at a personal and even ideological cost. This is not the time to rule people out,” he said.
Rivlin told Gantz and Netanyahu that as neither had secured a majority of recommendations to form the next government, he had greater leeway in who he would task to do so. His decision on who he’ll task to string together a government will come by next week.
A joint statement issued by Likud and Blue and White after the meeting said officials from the parties would meet Tuesday.
Earlier, Gantz met with Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, who according to near-final election results holds the balance of power in the Knesset, with Likud and Blue and White both lacking a clear path to a majority without his party.
After the meeting, Liberman said a unity government was a done deal, with only the order of the rotation yet to be hashed out.
Liberman campaigned on forcing a unity government between Yisrael Beytenu, Blue and White and Likud if they needed him to form a government and has reiterated this demand since the elections.
During consultations Rivlin held with political parties on Sunday and Monday, Yisrael Beytenu refrained from backing Netanyahu or Gantz to form the next coalition, with Liberman saying the two did not back his proposed unity government and were looking elsewhere to obtain a majority.
Last Tuesday’s election was called after a previous round of elections in April did not result in a government. The Knesset was dissolved in late May and a new vote called after Liberman conditioned his entry into Netanyahu’s government on the advancement of a law regulating the military draft for ultra-Orthodox students — a demand rejected by the Haredi political parties.