Talks between representatives from the Likud party and its rival, Blue and White, over the possibility of forming a unity government began Sunday morning at the Knesset, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expected to tell President Reuven Rivlin that he is unable to form a majority government if the negotiations fail.
Netanyahu’s Likud party said Saturday the prime minister is considering “returning the mandate” given to him by Rivlin to form a government should the talks end without result, while blaming Blue and White for the deadlock.
Netanyahu was charged by Rivlin on Wednesday night 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.
Rivlin therefore proposed 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,” would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.
Netanyahu has not said he would step down if charged, and, under Israeli law, may not be required to do so. Many legal scholars believe a prime minister could remain in power even if convicted, and would only be required to resign once all appeal processes were exhausted. Blue and White has said that it will not partner Likud in a coalition unless Netanyahu steps down.
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.
On Saturday, the Likud party said in a statement that Netanyahu instructed his negotiating team “to make every possible effort to advance a broad unity government” during talks on Sunday. Should Blue and White refuse to accept the president’s proposed framework or propose a “realistic” alternative, it added, however, “Netanyahu is very likely to return the mandate.”
To do so, Netanyahu would have to officially inform the president that he is unable to form a government.
If Netanyahu admits failure, Rivlin would probably then invite Gantz to try to build a majority, but his Blue and White party considers it extremely unlikely that Knesset members from Netanyahu’s Likud would revolt against their leader, and thus see no real path for Gantz to form a government.
Also Saturday, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, a senior Likud figure, said the party was firmly united behind Netanyahu. “There is no government without Likud, and there is no Likud without Netanyahu,” Katz said in an interview on Channel 12.
Those trying to push Netanyahu and Likud aside “don’t really want a government,” he added. “They are interested in other things.”
Katz said he was “surprised and impressed by the creativity of Rivlin’s proposed framework,” calling it the only realistic outcome that would prevent another round of elections.
“We had elections and there were results, and the president charged Netanyahu first with forming a government because he has the bigger bloc,” Katz said.
September’s elections came five months after April’s vote when, as now, Liberman’s fiercely secular Yisrael Beytenu refused to join a coalition with ultra-Orthodox members.
Blue and White has reportedly demanded in the talks that any new government legislate to ensure that no future prime minister could serve under an indictment, and to impose term limits on the position of prime minister. Blue and White is also calling to institute civil marriage in Israel.
Netanyahu, who faces fraud and breach of trust charges in three cases, and bribery in one of them, is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday with the attorney general, his last opportunity to avoid prosecution.
Netanyahu, who denies all the charges and claims he is the victim of a political witch hunt involving the media, the opposition, the police and state prosecutors, on Thursday urged Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to allow his pre-indictment hearing to be broadcast live, but Mandelblit rejected the “unprecedented” suggestion, labeling it a media stunt.