PM to try again 'before returning the mandate' to Rivlin

Netanyahu phones Gantz in ‘last effort’ after unity talks end without progress

Likud says rival leaders to meet Wednesday for last-ditch discussions on forming joint government; PM’s pre-indictment hearing begins the same day

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), and Benny Gantz (L), leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for late president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), and Benny Gantz (L), leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for late president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Negotiations between representatives from the Likud party and its rival, Blue and White, over the possibility of forming a unity government ended early Sunday afternoon with both sides blaming the other for a lack of progress and apparent breakdown of the talks.

Likud said Prime Minister Benjamin 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 his counterpart from Blue and White, Benny Gantz.

Immediately after the Sunday meeting, Blue and White released a statement saying that “regrettably, Likud is sticking to its precondition of ‘Netanyahu first.’ Within this framework, Likud is insistent on the 55-member bloc 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.”

The party added: “The State of Israel needs a broad, stable and liberal unity government under the leadership of Benny Gantz — we will continue to pursue this goal and this goal alone.”

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 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.”

While Netanyahu is now expected to tell President Reuven Rivlin that he is unable to form a majority government, Likud said he will “make a last effort to realize the possibility of forming a government at this stage, before returning the mandate to the president.”

Netanyahu and Gantz will meet on Wednesday evening, Likud said, after the Blue and White leader returns from a trip to London.

The prime minister phoned Gantz to set up the appointment and offered to come to his home on Wednesday for the talks, Likud said.

The negotiators from both parties will also convene again on Wednesday morning, Netanyahu’s party said.

In a later statement, Blue and White called for direct talks between Netanyahu and Gantz, without confirming a meeting had been scheduled.

“Following a conversation between Blue and White chairman, LTG (res.) Benny Gantz and the prime minister and Likud chairman, we are calling once again for direct negotiations between Likud and Blue and White on the basis of forming a broad and liberal unity government,” it said.

“This is our goal and we will take all possible steps to achieve it in this new year. We will spare no effort and hold every possible meeting in order to advance our aim. Only through direct negotiations between Blue and White and Likud can we reach an agreement that will result in the establishment of a unity government and avoid an unnecessary third election.”

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.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, during a press conference at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

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” in such a scenario, 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.

Netanyahu, who faces fraud and breach of trust charges in three cases, and bribery in one of them, is scheduled for a hearing starting 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.

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