Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud party leader, on Wednesday reaffirmed along with his right-wing religious allies that they would continue to act as a united bloc, and blamed the impasse in coalition talks on the rival Blue and White party.
After failing to secure a majority of Knesset seats in the elections last month, Likud formed a pact with the national-religious Yamina alliance and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, declaring they would only enter a government together and would back Netanyahu for prime minister.
That 55-MK bloc has been a major sticking point in negotiations with Blue and White, which campaigned on forming a secular unity government and ruled out joining a coalition under Netanyahu due to the pending corruption indictment against him.
Netanyahu and the right-wing party leaders were briefed by Likud ministers Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin, who are leading coalition talks on behalf of the bloc.
According to a Likud statement, Elkin and Levin blamed the blown negotiations on Blue and White, specifically its No. 2, Yair Lapid.
Levin and Elkin had been scheduled to meet Wednesday with Blue and White negotiator Yoram Turbowicz, but Blue and White, headed by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, called off the talks and said Likud was not negotiating in good faith.
“Blue and White’s negotiating team canceled the meeting because Lapid caused Gantz to fold over the holiday with the purpose of dragging the country to elections. Lapid doesn’t want a rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz but rather between him and Gantz,” a Likud statement said Wednesday.
Likud was referring to an agreement between Gantz and Lapid that would see the latter take over as prime minister after two years and eight months if Blue and White formed the next government. Blue and White has refrained from publicly commenting on the rotation deal since the coalition talks started.
Following the meeting between Netanyahu and his political allies, Likud said “it was agreed that the heads of the nationalist camp will continue together.”
Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who has not attended similar meetings in recent weeks, met separately with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. Shas lawmaker Ariel Attias attended the meeting with party chiefs in his stead.
“The bloc is as solid as concrete,” Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked said ahead of the meeting.
Likud said the party leaders did not decide on whether or when Netanyahu will tell President Reuven Rivlin that his efforts to form a coalition had failed — meaning the president could task someone else with the job. The prime minister’s party has intimated such a decision could come as soon as this week, well ahead of the deadline.
Wednesday’s sit-down came as Netanyahu’s lawyers attended the start of his pre-indictment hearing on graft charges. Netanyahu, who faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them, has denied any wrongdoing.
The 55 Knesset members from Likud, Shas, UTJ and Yamina are widely believed to support legislation that would ensure Netanyahu and other lawmakers in legal jeopardy immunity from prosecution, but are six seats short of a majority necessary to push such a law through. Efforts to bring in other lawmakers have faltered.
Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet with Gantz Wednesday evening, but the centrist party canceled the summit late Tuesday, saying there were no signs that the premier was truly interested in reaching a power-sharing compromise.
Likud and Blue and White have accused each other of intransigence in the coalition talks and claimed that the other side was pushing the country toward a third election in under a year.
Despite his legal woes, Netanyahu was tasked by Rivlin last week 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 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 without the other.
Rivlin had suggested 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 probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.
But the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.
If nothing changes in the party’s positions, Netanyahu is now expected to tell Rivlin that he is unable to form a majority government. This will likely lead to Gantz being given a chance to form a coalition.