Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday evening announced he had failed to muster a coalition after almost four weeks of effort, and therefore returned the mandate to form a government to President Reuven Rivlin. Netanyahu’s 28-day deadline for building a government was due to expire on Wednesday.
Rivlin is now expected, probably on Tuesday morning, to charge Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with the task of trying to muster a coalition that can win a Knesset majority. Blue and White said it was determined to build the “liberal unity government, led by Benny Gantz, that the people of Israel voted for.”
Gantz now has 28 days to try and do what Netanyahu could not. If he fails, any MK will have 21 days to obtain the support of a Knesset majority to form a government. If no one succeeds, elections will be initiated automatically — a third round inside a year after April’s and September’s inconclusive votes.
At the end of May, after trying in vain for six weeks to build a coalition, Netanyahu called new elections rather than allow Gantz the chance to do so. Monday evening’s move to return the mandate to Rivlin followed repeated pledges by Likud that Netanyahu would not again dissolve parliament without letting his rival attempt to muster a majority.
In a video statement, Netanyahu, who turned 70 on Monday, said he had worked “incessantly” over the past 26 days to form a “broad national unity government,” which would include his Likud party’s religious allies and the rival Blue and White party, but had been thwarted by its leader Gantz.
“Since I received the mandate, I have worked incessantly both in public and behind the scenes to establish a broad, national unity government. This is what the people want. This is also what Israel needs in the face of security challenges that are growing by the day, by the hour,” Netanyahu said.
“I made every effort to bring Benny Gantz to the negotiating table. Every effort to establish a broad national unity government, every effort to prevent another election,” he said. “Unfortunately, time after time, he declined. He simply refused.”
Yair Lapid, the No. 2 in Blue and White, hit back minutes later. “Bibi [Netanyahu] again failed,” he said in a statement.
“The time for spin is over,” the Blue and White statement said. “It is now time for action.”
A statement from Rivlin’s office said the president received Netanyahu’s request to return the mandate.
The statement said the director-general of the President’s Residence would inform faction heads that Rivlin intends to now task Gantz with forming a government.
Netanyahu was tasked by Rivlin 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 after September 17’s inconclusive elections (Likud: 32; Shas: 9; United Torah Judaism: 7 and Yamina 7). Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties (Blue and White: 33; Labor-Gesher: 6; Democratic Camp 5; and 10 MKs from the mainly Arab Joint List). But the 10 Arab MKs in that group would not join a Gantz-led coalition. (Three other MKs from the Joint List did not back either candidate.)
Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu holds the balance of power between the Netanyahu- and Gantz-led blocs, with eight seats, and has called for a secular unity government comprising Likud, Blue and White and his own party. But Netanyahu has refused to abandon his ultra-Orthodox partners Shas and United Torah Judaism. And Gantz has hitherto refused to partner Likud so long as Netanyahu is facing possible indictment in three corruption cases.
Rivlin has 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, among other matters, on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.
Prosecution officials said last week that they hoped to reach a final decision on whether to indict the premier by the end of the year, and possibly by next month.