Party leaders invited to meet again Wednesday

Gantz, Netanyahu agree to launch unity talks after meeting with Rivlin

President calls move ‘significant step forward,’ after two-hour meeting amid political deadlock; negotiating teams to sit down Tuesday

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (R) as President Reuven Rivlin looks on, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on September 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (R) as President Reuven Rivlin looks on, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on September 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and Likud counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to launch talks toward forming a unity government to break Israel’s current political impasse, after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin on Monday.

The two 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 again speak with Netanyahu and Gantz before the meeting ended.

Gantz, a former general whose centrist alliance took 33 seats in Tuesday’s election, was looking to unseat Netanyahu and his Likud party, which took 31 seats and has been at the helm for a decade. Neither party won enough seats together with their allied parties to secure a ruling majority, necessitating them to look outside their respective blocs or to each other to gather enough seats for a coalition.

The working meeting was the first by the two since 2015, when Gantz left his post as army chief of staff, and the two were invited for a second meeting at Rivlin’s official residence on Wednesday.

A joint statement issued by Likud and Blue and White after the meeting said officials from the parties would meet Tuesday to begin talks.

“Following the request of the president, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz discussed between themselves ways to advance the unity of Israel,” the statement read.

Rivlin’s office put out a statement saying the sit-down marked a “significant step forward.”

Rivlin was expected to propose a rotation agreement that would see the two party chiefs switch off as prime minister, though agreement over the order of such a deal remained elusive.

Gantz has insisted he be first under a rotational deal, as Blue and White is the largest party, and has ruled out joining a government with Netanyahu in light of the premier’s pending indictment on graft charges.

The prime minister, however, has formed a pact with his right-wing religious partners to not enter a government without them, and has called on Blue and White to join a coalition he leads.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s convoy arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem for a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on September 23, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu and Gantz did not speak to the press before the meeting, which was held at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

Rivlin, who must task a lawmaker with forming the next government by October 2, left the two to speak alone an hour after the meeting started.

Gantz and Netanyahu were accompanied by their negotiating teams for coalition talks, indicating that they were prepared in the case of a breakthrough during their meeting.

A picture released by the president’s staff showed the three clasping hands.

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 exclude people,” he said.

The president also said “a shared and equal government is possible,” reiterating his stance that a coalition including Likud and Blue and White was needed to stave off further elections.

Rivlin told Gantz and Netanyahu that as neither secured a majority of recommendations to form the next government, he had greater leeway in who he would task to do so.

The office said that the sides had agreed to not release information to the public unilaterally at this point.

Netanyahu received 55 recommendations during the consultations from his right-wing bloc, while Gantz got 54 recommendations from center-left parties and most of the Joint List, although the predominantly Arab alliance indicated it would not join his coalition.

Rivlin will decide which candidate to task with assembling the next coalition by next week, after wrapping up his meetings with party leaders.

Blue and White and Likud have each leaked to the media that they would like the other to have the first crack at forming a government, on the assumption that it would fail to do so, which would leave the rival party a better chance to build a coalition.

Earlier, Gantz met with Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, who holds the balance of power between the rival blocs in the Knesset.

After that 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 “liberal, nationalist, wide” unity government involving Blue and White and Likud, with his own Yisrael Beytenu too, and has reiterated this demand since the elections. He has ruled out other parties except for Labor-Gesher.

During consultations Rivlin held with political parties on Sunday and Monday, Yisrael Beytenu refrained from recommending 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.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (right) meets with Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman on September 23, 2019. (Elad Malka)

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a a faction meeting of his Likud party at the Knesset on September 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If the candidate fails, the second most likely candidate is 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 his or her leadership.

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.

Liberman’s refusal to enter the coalition, precipitating new elections, drew a furious response from his ally-turned-foe Netanyahu.

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