Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering “returning the mandate” given to him by President Reuven Rivlin to form a Knesset majority as soon as Sunday should the talks between negotiating teams for the Likud party, headed by Netanyahu, and Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, end without result. The teams are tasked with hammering out the details of a potential unity government.
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 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.
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 when or if he is indicted in one of more of the three criminal probes for which he faces charges, including one count of bribery, pending a hearing. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister,” 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.”
Likud said there was “no point in wasting time and dragging the state into continued paralysis.” The party added that should Netanyahu return the mandate to Rivlin, it will be to drive the point that Blue and White’s “hopes for a Likud coup or disbandment have no basis in reality.”
“A broad unity government as outlined by the president is the only solution to prevent unnecessary elections,” Likud said, in reference to a possible third round of elections.
The negotiating teams are expected to meet at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday; Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year festival, begins in the evening. The teams met on Friday for about four hours but made little headway, with each side appearing chiefly concerned with avoiding any blame for a collapse of negotiations.
“Most of the meeting dealt with the president’s plan, but Blue and White’s representatives did not say at the end whether they accepted it,” Likud said in a statement after the meeting Friday. For its part, Blue and White said in a statement that it was concerned with “principles and values” as “the foundation of any negotiation” while Likud was chiefly concerned with Netanyahu remaining prime minister.
Blue and White said it was clear Likud’s stance was “aimed at dragging the State of Israel into a third round of elections, in line with the interests of the prime minister.”
Should Sunday’s talks end without result, Netanyahu is expected to tell Rivlin that he was unable to muster a government coalition that same day or right after the holiday, according to a Channel 12 report.
At this point, 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.
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, a senior Likud figure, said the party was firmly united behind Netanyahu. “There is no government without Likud, and there is no Likud without Netanyahu,” Katz said in an interview on Channel 12.
Those trying to push Netanyahu and Likud aside, “don’t really want a government,” he added,” they are interested in other things.”
Katz said he was “surprised and impressed by the creativity of Rivlin’s proposed framework,” calling it the only realistic outcome that would prevent another round of elections.
“We had elections and there were results, and the president charged Netanyahu first with forming a government because he has the bigger bloc,” Katz said.
Netanyahu heads a 55-MK bloc of ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties following the elections earlier this month. These came five months after April’s vote when the, as now, Liberman’s fiercely secular Yisrael Beytenu party refused to join a coalition with ultra-Orthodox members.
Gantz heads a bloc of 54 centrist, left-wing and Arab politicians. Three other Arab politicians have refused to support any prime ministerial candidate and Liberman, who insists on backing only a “liberal, nationalist” coalition including both Likud and Blue and White, holds the balance of power between the Netanyahu- and Gantz-led blocs.
On Friday, two separate TV reports said some of Gantz’s advisers were urging him to accept Rivlin’s proposal and agree on a unity government with Netanyahu, but that his No. 2, Yair Lapid, was adamant that he should not. Lapid, and a second Blue and White leader, Gabi Ashkenazi, were adamant that Gantz would be “falling into a trap,” Channel 12 news reported, and that, whatever was agreed, Netanyahu would find a way to avoid relinquishing the prime ministership.
On Saturday, Avi Nissenkorn of Blue and White dismissed the reports that Lapid was blocking the potential deal and said Gantz would ask for the mandate to try and form a government.
“Blue and White won the elections, the public indicated that it wants a change,” Nissenkorn told Channel 12 in a TV interview. He called on the Likud to abandon negotiations as bloc with the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties and said that should Netanyahu “return the mandate,” Blue and White will ask for it and “work very hard with everyone to set up a stable government.”
“Netanyahu has not internalized the results of the elections,” Nissenkorn said, adding that Blue and White considers the president’s proposed outline for a unity government as a “survival plan” for Netanyahu.
“We too don’t want a third round of elections, we think the right solution is a unity government led by Benny Gantz without a person facing indictment,” Nissenkorn said
Blue and White has reportedly demanded in the talks that any new government legislate to ensure that no future prime minister could serve under an indictment, and to impose term limits on the position of prime minister. Blue and White is also calling to institute civil marriage in Israel.
Netanyahu, who faces fraud and breach of trust charges in three cases, and bribery in one of them, is scheduled for a hearing next 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.
Zvi Hauser, an MK for Blue and White, said Friday that Netanyahu is choosing “immunity over unity” by demanding that his entire bloc of 55 supporters be part of any future coalition, thus dooming any serious prospect of a partnership with Blue and White.
Netanyahu has been widely expected to try to win Knesset immunity from prosecution if he can form a new coalition, and possibly to then seek legislation preventing the Supreme Court from overturning such immunity. His failure to win a clear majority in April and again last week has complicated that effort.