Blue and White leader Benny Gantz on Wednesday night informed President Reuven Rivlin he had failed to form a governing coalition, paving the way to a shocking third round of elections in under a year.
The centrist leader conceded defeat in a phone call with the president, ahead of a televised speech, after unity talks with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu broke down.
The announcement came several hours before his midnight deadline. With the declaration, the country’s year-long spiraling political chaos entered uncharted territory, formally laid out in law but never before exercised: Israeli lawmakers now have 21 days during which any 61 Knesset members can back any MK as prime minister, including Netanyahu or Gantz. If that doesn’t occur, Israel will go to unprecedented third elections in under a year.
Gantz told Rivlin he was determined to work during the upcoming three-week period “and make every effort to form a good government for the citizens of Israel.”
“Even in these [coming] days, I plan to engage in direct, relevant and rapid negotiations to establish a government that will remove Israel from the total paralysis imposed on it” by the Likud-led bloc of right-wing and religious parties, Gantz said in a speech shortly after the announcement.
Gantz was tasked last month with forming a coalition after Netanyahu failed to do so, becoming the first prime minister-designate other than the Likud leader in a decade.
Rivlin had urged both to form a unity government of Blue and White and Likud. He suggested a power-sharing agreement whereby, he indicated, Netanyahu would take a leave of absence if he is indicted in the three corruption cases pending against him. The attorney general is expected to announce charges against Netanyahu in the coming days.
But talks broke down over who would serve as prime minister first; Netanyahu’s insistence on negotiating on behalf of the bloc of 55 right-wing and religious lawmakers who backed him; and Gantz’s refusal to serve under the prime minister facing criminal charges. Privately, Blue and White sources said Gantz feared that if he agreed to let Netanyahu serve as prime minister first in a rotation agreement, he would have no legal basis to be sure that Netanyahu would hand over power to him at the agreed time.
Reports had indicated Gantz’s party had also explored the possibility of a minority government propped up by outside support from the Joint List of Arab-led parties.
In the speech Wednesday night, Gantz said he “turned every stone” to form a government, but was met with a “bloc” obstructing the possibility.
“I asked of the prime minister who lost in the election to hold direct negotiations. And in response I received insults, slander and childish videos,” said Gantz. “The people chose me and my colleagues in Blue and White to lead Israel. No one has the right to prevent the people from their choice.”
He was referring to the single Knesset seat advantage of Blue and White over Likud in the September election. Netanyahu was nonetheless the first pick to form a government after more lawmakers backed him for the premiership in consultations with the president.
Gantz accused the prime minister of engaging in a “dangerous move, the first of its kind in the history of the country, to prevent Israeli citizens for more than a year from establishing the government that voted for it by a clear and absolute vote, and to barricade itself in a transitional government for over a year.”
Entertaining the increasingly likely possibility of a third vote, Gantz “the citizens of Israel, right and left, who are tired of the current situation, will go with us. We will win and form a broad and strong national reconciliation government.”
In a dramatic announcement earlier Wednesday after unity talks broke down, Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman announced that he would not support either a minority government headed by Gantz or a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu, essentially burying Blue and White’s chances.
“There is no chance. We will not join either a limited right- or left-wing government or a minority government. Whatever sort of government that would be, it would not survive and would not be able to function to do what is needed for the country,” Liberman told his Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting in the Knesset.
Liberman said that despite the rejection of his plan by Blue and White and Likud, “liberal unity was very close. The only thing we had to overcome was a personal rift — one [side] wasn’t willing to accept the president’s plan, the other wouldn’t give up on his messianic, ultra-Orthodox bloc.”
Netanyahu last December called early elections, which were held in April. In May, however, the Likud leader failed to cobble together a government after Liberman refused to join unless a bill to enlist ultra-Orthodox students into the military was passed into law unchanged — a demand rejected by the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas. A second vote was held in September, leading to the current deadlock.
Should a third round of elections be held this year, it is expected to be scheduled for mid-March.
The centrist Blue and White political alliance — composed of former IDF chief of staff Gantz’s Israel Resilience party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, former defense minister Moshe Yaalon’s Telem party, and featuring former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi — coalesced ahead of the April vote. In that election, it received 35 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, as did Likud. It ran on an identical slate in the September vote, picking up 33 seats, compared to Likud’s 32.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.