Likud members said open to unity government, but scared to oppose Netanyahu

Ruling party appears to soften stance, says PM will court all ‘Zionist’ parties; Blue and White sources stress Gantz won’t team up with Netanyahu due to looming criminal charges

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a faction meeting of his Likud party in Jerusalem on September 18, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a faction meeting of his Likud party in Jerusalem on September 18, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was reportedly softening its opposition to a unity government with the rival Blue and White late Wednesday, as the results of Tuesday’s elections left it no other clear path to reaching a ruling majority.

While Netanyahu has not ruled out sitting in a coalition with Blue and White, he vowed Wednesday to work toward forming a new government under his leadership that would include his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism. But that mix of parties cannot muster a majority, and would alienate other potential partners.

There is little chance Blue and White would join such a coalition, having ruled out sitting in a government with Netanyahu, who is expected to face criminal indictment in the coming months. It also remains unclear who would lead such a unity government, and Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners have ruled out a partnership with Blue and White’s Yair Lapid.

Over the past few months, Blue and White has urged members of Likud to dethrone Netanyahu and forge a unity government with the centrist alliance.

Quoting Likud sources, Channel 13 said members of the ruling party have admitted they are too intimidated to openly challenge Netanyahu’s leadership. But they said they would nonetheless push the prime minister to form a unity government with Blue and White, and by doing so signal to the prime minister that his days in office would be numbered if he cannot deliver.

No Likud lawmakers have publicly said they will seek to oust Netanyahu as party leader. After exit polls released Tuesday night indicated that the right-wing bloc would not win a majority of Knesset seats, senior Likud lawmakers all threw their backing behind the prime minister.

Amid the reported rumblings in Likud, Netanyahu’s party released a statement saying that it and its right-wing partners would reach out to all Zionist parties, such as Blue and White, and that it had no interest in further elections. Tuesday’s vote was initiated by Netanyahu after he failed to form a government following elections in April.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t rule out any Zionist party and therefore there is no reason or desire to go to additional elections,” Likud said.

“After we today coalesced the bloc of right-wing parties, we’ll reach out in the coming days to all Zionist parties and begin negotiations,” it added, referring to an agreement reached on Wednesday afternoon by the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a unified bloc and back Netanyahu for prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with right-wing and Haredi faction leaders at his office in Jerusalem on September 18, 2019. (Courtesy Likud)

Likud also reiterated Netanyahu’s comments from earlier Wednesday that the alternative to a government he heads and that includes right-wing parties is a center-left coalition that “relies on Arab parties.”

Despite Likud’s insistence it had no interest in a third round of elections in a year, Channel 12 quoted unnamed sources who spoke with Netanyahu as saying the prime minister has not ruled out the possibility.

The network also said Netanyahu considered announcing at a Likud event early Wednesday he was open to a unity government, but backed off.

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz at the Blue and White headquarters on elections night in Tel Aviv, on September 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Though Netanyahu signaled he was open to having Blue and White in a government he would lead, sources close to the centrist party’s leader Benny Gantz told Channel 12 there was no way he would go back his pre-election promise not to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu in light of his legal woes.

Blue and White leaders remained largely silent Wednesday in response to Netanyahu’s pronouncements, but Blue and White MK Yoaz Hendel called on Likud not to push for third elections, saying what is needed is a Zionist unity government. “This is what the public wants,” he wrote on Twitter.

With 95 percent of votes counted, unofficial election results on Wednesday evening had Blue and White with 33 seats, one more than Likud.

Together with its right-wing and religious allies, Likud had 56 seats, five short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Blue and White also lacked a majority with center-left parties and Yisrael Beytenu, as there was little prospect of the latter sitting in a government with the predominantly Arab Joint List.

President Reuven Rivlin will ask the heads of all of the parties voted into Knesset to nominate who they would like to form a government.

Whichever leader gets the most nominations will get the first chance to try and form a coalition. They will have 28 days to try and form a viable coalition, with a potential 14-day extension. If that proves impossible, as after the previous election in April, Rivlin could then give another leader an opportunity. Netanyahu headed off that possibility in April by opting for an unprecedented second election instead.

AFP contributed to this report.

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