Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu met on Sunday for the first time since the Blue and White chairman was tasked last week with forming a coalition.
Neither side reported progress toward a unity government during the talks, but statements from both parties said that Gantz and Netanyahu had agreed to sit down again in person, in addition to having their negotiating teams meet again.
“I finished a businesslike meeting with the prime minister. I can inform you that I’ll continue with all efforts to form a unity government and to prevent third elections for the State of Israel,” Gantz told reporters later in the evening.
The one-on-one meeting at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv came hours after Likud negotiators met with their Blue and White counterparts, in their own inaugural effort to break the political logjam that forced Netanyahu to return the government-forming mandate back to President Reuven Rivlin last week.
In that meeting as well, no progress was reported, with Blue and White saying afterward that Likud representatives had refused to budge on their insistence that they would only join a government along with the rest of the members of their right-wing, religious bloc. Likud’s lead negotiator, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, meanwhile said in a statement that Blue and White arbiters had refused to accept Rivlin’s unity government proposal, which would see Netanyahu serve first as premier in a rotational agreement.
That president’s unity government scheme would see power equally divided between Netanyahu and Gantz, who would each serve two years as premier.
Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.
After the negotiators’ meeting, Blue and White said that it was seeking to establish a government “under the premise and understanding that the mandate is currently held by… Gantz, thereby making him the appointed prime minister.”
Levin also charged that Blue and White refused to rule out the possibility that it was seeking to form a minority government with outside support from the Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab parties.
Gantz’s party has never expressed interest in such a scenario and a number of Blue and White MKs have ruled it out entirely.
Entering Sunday’s meeting, Levin issued a statement saying he was representing “the entire 55-member right-wing bloc” at the sit-down.
A day after last month’s elections, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, along with Likud and the Yamina slate (which has since splintered into New Right and Jewish Home-National Union), all agreed to enter coalition negotiations as a united front of 55 MKs.
While Blue and White has made clear that its primary interest is a unity government with Likud, the centrist alliance said last week that it wants to negotiate with parties individually. Gantz has reached out to the leaders of all parties, except for the hardline Balad faction (part of the Joint List), to schedule meetings in an effort to cobble together a coalition. However, Shas, UTJ, New Right and Jewish Home said they would allow the Likud negotiators led by Levin to speak on their behalf.
In the lead-up to last month’s election, Blue and White leaders said they would seek to form a government without the Haredi and hardline religious parties.
Citing recent warnings by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Netanyahu earlier Sunday said the possibility of conflict necessitated the swift formation of a broad unity government to respond to security threats.
Also on Sunday, Blue and White negotiators met with their counterparts from the Yisrael Beytenu party. The latter party’s leader, Avigdor Liberman, is seen to play a critical role in the formation of a unity government and has insisted that such a coalition not include the Joint List, the left-wing Democratic Camp or any of the religious parties.
Gantz’s slate said it had scheduled similar meetings with the Labor and Democratic Camp parties for Tuesday morning.