Netanyahu-led bloc races to gather support for fresh bid at forming government

Lawmakers given until 9 a.m. to sign statements backing prime minister after Liberman seemingly pushes count above threshold for last-ditch attempt at avoiding third elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Likud party was scrambling to gather signatures from lawmakers in a bid to win another attempt at forming a government, after the leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party said he would pledge support to both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz, according to reports late Saturday.

By law, the first candidate to present President Reuven Rivlin with 61 signatures from lawmakers can ask for 14 days to build a coalition, with the clock running down before a third round of elections must be called.

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman has pledged to give his party’s signatures to both the Likud party and to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White if either one makes the request, the Ynet news site reported. Lawmakers are allowed to sign for more than one candidate.

The backing of Yisrael Beytenu’s eight lawmakers would push Netanyahu’s Likud-led right-religious bloc past the 61-signature mark, giving Netanyahu a third chance at negotiating a government in under a year.

A form being sent to members of the the bloc asked them to sign a short statement backing Netanyahu and submit it by 9 a.m. Sunday, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.

However, a question remains as to whether Rivlin can give the mandate to form a government to Netanyahu, after the prime minister was served with criminal charges in November.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ruled last week that Netanyahu can continue to serve as a caretaker prime minister, but has declined to comment thus far on whether he could be tasked with forming a government, calling it a “hypothetical.”

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)

Blue and White is reportedly not seeking to gather signatures. The party would likely need the support of either the Arab-led Joint List or defectors from the Netanyahu camp to gain enough support, even with Liberman’s backing.

The Knesset is currently in an unprecedented period of political uncertainty following two elections that have failed to show a clear winner, leading to several unsuccessful rounds of coalition talks by both Netanyahu and Gantz.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The 120-seat parliament has until December 11 to collect 61 signatures and give a candidate — including one previously tasked — two weeks to attempt to form a government, before it must by law dissolve itself and call new elections.

Since Likud’s Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz were unable to form a government following the September 17 election, there has been some speculation that another candidate, such as Likud’s MK Gideon Sa’ar or Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, would use the period until December 11 to gather the 61 signatures of MKs that would see them tasked with forming a coalition.

Negotiating teams between Likud and Blue and White are set to meet Sunday afternoon for more talks, though reports indicate both sides see little chance for a breakthrough.

According to reports, on the table is an offer from Likud to allow Netanyahu to stay on as prime minister for some four months, after which he would step aside and allow Gantz to take the job.

While Gantz is mulling the offer, Party No. 2 Yair Lapid is stridently against it, Channel 13 news reported.

Sunday will also see Liberman meet with Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, who has recently ramped up efforts to broker a unity government.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Thursday, Liberman announced that he had been willing to join a Netanyahu-led government, but the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox partners were unwilling to compromise on religion and state issues, in what some saw as an opening for new talks.

A secularist who campaigned on a pledge to push against Orthodox hegemony, Liberman presented a list of demands on Friday, saying they were the absolute minimum to which his secular party will agree in any negotiations to form a coalition government.

Liberman — who refused to join a Netanyahu government in May over disagreements with ultra-Orthodox parties on the military draft law of ultra-Orthodox students — had been pushing for a unity government of Likud, Blue and White, and Yisrael Beytenu.

“We are a step away from unnecessary third elections,” Liberman wrote Friday.

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