Teams representing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and his chief rival Benny Gantz’s Blue and White met Tuesday as part of negotiations for a unity government, in a long-shot effort to solve the political deadlock in the wake of last week’s national elections.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin headed Likud’s team, meeting with Blue and White’s Yoram Turbowicz, a former aide to prime minister Ehud Olmert. The two sides issued a joint statement after the 1.5-hour sit down, saying the meeting was “matter-of-fact and held in good spirits.”
The statement emphasized that Turbowicz viewed Levin as a representative of the Likud party and the prime minister while Levin said he represented all 55 members of the right-wing bloc.
The meeting came as the sides have continued to bicker, with Blue and White claiming that Netanyahu plans to sell his right-wing religious allies short, drawing accusations that Gantz is trying to break up Netanyahu’s bloc.
President Reuven Rivlin invited Gantz and Netanyahu for a private dinner on Wednesday, after meeting with the two men on Monday.
Yamina party head Ayelet Shaked congratulated Gantz and Netanyahu on their upcoming meeting and reiterated her party’s commitment to the right-wing bloc.
“We adhere to and believe in the unity of the [right-wing] bloc with the prime minister. We also saw from the results of the elections that we must join hands and establish a unity government with parties from the left,” Shaked said.
Netanyahu assured his religious right-wing political partners Monday night that he would stick to his pact to negotiate as a bloc with them. At the same time, Gantz told his party members that he would not abandon his promise to the voters not to let Netanyahu remain prime minister, in an indication that the political gridlock that has left Israel without a government for months could persist.
Netanyahu last week had the Yamina, Shas and UTJ parties sign an agreement with his own Likud party to negotiate as a group, after elections that saw the right-wing and religious parties fail to garner enough support to form a coalition on their own. Gantz and his center-left partners also fell short of the needed 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset, leaving the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party in the kingmaker position with eight seats.
The prime minister on Monday met for the first time with Gantz, at Rivlin’s residence, and agreed to begin talks aimed toward building a unity coalition.
Following the talks with Gantz, which were initiated by Rivlin, Likud said Netanyahu spoke by phone with the heads of his allied parties to update them on the meeting. According to a Likud statement, Netanyahu said he stressed to Gantz that he was representing the “entire nationalist camp” and handling negotiations on behalf of all of them.
“I’m committed to what I promised you,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying.
Gantz has insisted that he head any unity government and ruled out sitting with Netanyahu due to his pending indictment on graft charges. In the final weeks of the election campaign, Gantz also vowed to form a “secular” government and rejected partnering with Shas and UTJ.
After leaving the President’s Residence, Gantz updated Blue and White leaders on his talks with Netanyahu, the centrist party said, and said he had told Netanyahu unity was not possible unless he stepped down as prime minister.
“In the meeting, unity was talked about a lot,” Gantz said in a statement, emphasizing that Blue and White would stick to its campaign promises.
“The public chose change, and we have no intention of giving up on leading [the coalition], on our values or on our natural partners along the way,” Gantz said in the party statement.
Blue and White sources were quoted by the Ynet news site as saying Netanyahu’s attendance at the meeting was all an act and that he was jockeying for a third round of elections in less than year.
Netanyahu “is being deceitful,” the sources were reported to have said. “He is pulling with all [his] might for third elections because he still believes he’ll get 61 [seats].”
“He knows we won’t sit with [Yaakov] Litzman and [Bezalel] Smotrich,” added the sources, referring to the UTJ leader and a top Yamina lawmaker.
Netanyahu and Gantz met for over two hours at the President’s Residence, first with Rivlin and then alone, with talks reportedly centering around who would head a possible joint government. Rivlin returned to speak with two again before the meeting ended.
Rivlin was expected to propose a rotation agreement that would see the two party chiefs share the premiership, though agreement over the order of such a deal remained elusive.
As Gantz and Netanyahu met alone, Rivlin’s office said he had told Netanyahu and Gantz that Israelis do not want another election and the onus was on them to overcome the gridlock.
“The responsibility for establishing a government falls on you, and the people expect you to find a solution and to prevent further elections, even if it comes at a personal and even ideological cost. This is not the time to rule people out,” he said.
Rivlin told Gantz and Netanyahu that as neither had secured a majority of recommendations to form the next government, he had greater leeway in whom he would task to do so. His decision on who the potential next prime minister will be will come by next week.
Agencies contributed to this report.