Blue and White on Tuesday evening said an expected meeting between its party chief Benny Gantz and Likud head Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday would not take place, as there were no signs that the premier was truly interested in reaching a power-sharing compromise.
The announcement led to both parties accusing each other of intransigence and claiming that the other side was pushing the country toward a third election. And it could pave the way to Netanyahu ending his coalition-building efforts and returning the mandate to do so to Israel’s president.
Negotiators from both parties had been set to convene again on Wednesday morning, with the leaders then meeting in the evening.
But Blue and White said that “at this stage the most basic conditions to hold an additional meeting between the negotiating teams have not ripened.”
“For this reason no such meeting will be held tomorrow,” the centrist party said. “Naturally under these circumstances there is no place to hold a meeting at this stage between the two party leaders.” The party said such a meeting could yet be held later in the week or next.
Blue and White officials said Likud was not negotiating in good faith, and was only seeking to blame them for the failure to form a government. “We won’t serve as the backdrop for the Likud’s election games,” Blue and White said.
The party’s officials said talks could proceed if Likud came to the negotiation table without preconditions and without demanding ultra-Orthodox and other right-wing parties be part of any coalition. Likud has been negotiating on behalf of a bloc of 55 MKs — from Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism — who are backing Netanyahu for the prime ministership.
Likud responded that it was “stunned” by Blue and White’s decision to “torpedo” the negotiations. It said Gantz’s party appeared to have decided to “go to elections” and blamed the party’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, claiming that the main obstacle to a unity agreement was Lapid’s resistance to a rotation agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu.
The prime minister “once again calls on Benny Gantz to show responsibility, to prevent an election and meet with him tomorrow as planned,” Likud said.
Blue and White’s leadership has consistently said it would not agree to serve in a coalition under Netanyahu’s leadership so long as he is suspected of criminal wrongdoing.
Following the cancellation of the meeting, Netanyahu was set to meet Wedensday morning with members of his bloc. His intentions for the meeting were not immediately known.
President Reuven Rivlin had 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, including one count of bribery, pending a hearing. 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 on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement. And Likud has vowed that any coalition must include its partners in the right-wing Yamina alliance and the two ultra-Orthodox parties — a notion that is anathema to Blue and White’s centrist and secularist agenda.
On Sunday, following the latest meeting between party representatives, Likud said Netanyahu would make a final attempt to reach agreements on Wednesday — the same day his pre-indictment hearing begins with the attorney general — in direct talks with Gantz.
Blue and White released a statement Sunday saying that “regrettably, Likud is sticking to its precondition of ‘Netanyahu first.’ Within this framework, Likud is insistent on the 55-member bloc [of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties] and on throwing around slogans with the sole aim of generating support in preparation for dragging Israel into another round of elections at the behest of Netanyahu.”
In its own statement, Likud said that the lack of progress was due to “Blue and White’s refusal to accept the unity government [proposed by] the president of the state — an equal government with a [premiership] rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz.”
Likud said that Blue and White made “a strategic decision to slam the door to a unity government and drag the state into elections.”
If nothing changes in the party’s positions, Netanyahu is now expected to tell Rivlin that he is unable to form a majority government, and may due so as early as Wednesday. This will likely lead to Gantz being given a chance to form a coalition.
Netanyahu was charged by Rivlin last week 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, and given 28 days to do so. Gantz, his rival, heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties, but the 10 Arab MKs in that group would not join a Gantz-led coalition. Neither candidate has a clear path to a 61-strong Knesset majority.
Gantz’s Blue and White won 33 seats in the September 17 elections, ahead of Likud’s 32 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. Avigdor Liberman’s eight-seat Yisrael Beytenu party holds the balance of power between the blocs, and insists that Likud and Blue and White form a unity government without ultra-Orthodox, “messianist,” left-wing and Arab parties.
But Likud has so far ruled out such a government.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.