Gantz, set to be tasked with forming coalition, invites Likud to unity talks
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Gantz, set to be tasked with forming coalition, invites Likud to unity talks

Netanyahu huddles with leaders of 55-member right-wing bloc that supports him, as Blue and White poised to be given shot at building government

Retired General Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White political alliance, is pictured after paying his respects in front of the coffin of the recently deceased former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Retired General Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White political alliance, is pictured after paying his respects in front of the coffin of the recently deceased former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The Blue and White party on Wednesday invited representatives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud to a meeting on Thursday aimed at building a unity government led by its leader Benny Gantz, as the centrist party was set to be given a shot at building a coalition.

In a vague response, the Likud party said that Netanyahu had responded to the request and that he “reiterated his call to adopt the president’s outline for establishing a broad national unity government, which is the government needed for Israel at this time.”

Netanyahu was reported to have agreed for the two negotiating teams to meet, while insisting his negotiators would represent the entire right-wing and religious bloc led by Likud.

Netanyahu, who informed President Reuven Rivlin earlier this week that he had failed to build a government, met Wednesday afternoon with members of the bloc of 55 MKs he leads in the Knesset.

At the start of the meeting of the right-wing and religious parties that support Netanyahu for prime minister, Yamina’s Naftali Bennett said they “will do everything to form a broad government and prevent another election. The citizens of Israel will not forgive those who lead to a third election.”

Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who has not attended similar meetings in recent weeks, was also present, in an apparent bid to display bloc unity.

In past such meetings since the election Netanyahu had his allies sign various declarations affirming their support for him alone as candidate for prime minister. No such declaration was made Wednesday but the parties agreed for Likud ministers Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin to continue representing the bloc as a joint unit in upcoming negotiations.

Prime Minister Bejnamin Netanyahu meets with heads of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties in Jerusalem, October 23, 2019 (Likud)

Netanyahu was initially tasked by Rivlin with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a bloc of 55 MKs after last month’s inconclusive elections (Likud: 32; Shas: 9; United Torah Judaism: 7 and Yamina: 7).

Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties (Blue and White: 33; Labor-Gesher: 6; Democratic Camp: 5; and 10 out of 13 MKs from the mainly Arab Joint List). The Arab lawmakers, however, have ruled out joining a Gantz-led coalition.

On Monday, the prime minister informed Rivlin that he had been unable to form a coalition, leaving the ground free for Gantz to make an attempt — though he is seen as being no more likely to manage it.

If Gantz fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, a majority of lawmakers could try to endorse any Knesset member — including Netanyahu and Gantz — as prime minister. A leader has never before been elected during that time period in Israel. If that fails, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a third election in under a year.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has stepped up his rhetoric against Netanyahu ahead of the next phase of coalition negotiations, blaming him for the current impasse and saying senior members of his Likud party were already secretly “eulogizing” him as leader but afraid to challenge him publicly.

Yisrael Beytenu, in the kingmaker position following the inconclusive September 17 elections, has said it will continue with its policy of not endorsing anyone for prime minister, while Netanyahu’s allies have reiterated their support for the premier.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman speaks to press while touring the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv on election day, September 17, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In media interviews Tuesday and Wednesday, the secular right-wing Liberman called Likud members “chickens” for continuing to rally around their embattled leader, charging that behind the scenes they were in fact “burying him alive.”

“I expect Likud MKs to wake up and realize that Netanyahu is dragging them, against their will and their interests, to another election,” Liberman told the Ynet news site on Tuesday. “It is time for them to stand up and tell Netanyahu ‘enough.’ Right now they are all behaving like a bunch of chickens. There is a big difference between what they are saying behind the scenes and in private conversations, and what they are saying in interviews.”

He elaborated on that point in a Wednesday interview with the Kan public broadcaster: “Likud members are fending for themselves and Likud. We already see that all the senior members are preparing for primaries. While they are paying lip service and adding the words ‘after the Netanyahu era,’ in practice they are already eulogizing Netanyahu and burying him alive — [Nir] Barkat, [Israel] Katz and [Gideon] Sa’ar already said they would run. Whoever sees the events they’re hosting… understands that they are deep in the race.”

Liberman is not in either bloc and has called for a secular unity government comprising Likud, Blue and White and his own party. But Netanyahu has refused to abandon his traditional ultra-Orthodox partners Shas and United Torah Judaism. And Gantz has so far refused to partner with Netanyahu so long as he faces possible indictment in three corruption cases. Netanyahu has claimed he has been pushing for a unity government but Gantz was refusing to even talk.

Rivlin has previously suggested a unity government in which power would be equally divided and Netanyahu and Gantz would each serve two years as prime minister. 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 three criminal 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.

But the two parties have been unable to agree, among other matters, on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.

Michael Bachner and AP contributed to this report.

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