Netanyahu won’t seek more time to form coalition, says Likud MK

PM has until Wednesday to clinch government or tell president he failed; David Bitan says ‘no point’ in requesting additional 14 days with negotiations stalled

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, September 25, 2019, when Rivlin tapped Netanyahu to form the next Israeli government. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, September 25, 2019, when Rivlin tapped Netanyahu to form the next Israeli government. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not ask President Reuven Rivlin for a 14-day extension after Wednesday’s deadline for forming a government, a lawmaker in his Likud party said Sunday.

Likud and its main rival, the centrist Blue and White party, have not made headway in negotiations aimed at forming a unity government.

Netanyahu must assemble a coalition by Wednesday night or inform Rivlin that he has failed to do so. By law, Rivlin could grant him a two-week extension, but the president is believed unlikely to do so, as the prospect of the premier making further progress in the current gridlock is seen as slim. Netanyahu currently heads a 55-strong bloc (Likud: 32 seats; Shas: 9; United Torah Judaism: 7, and Yamina: 7) in the 120-seat Knesset.

Instead, Rivlin would then need to task another Knesset member with attempting to form a government. Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz is the probable next candidate, though he is seen as even less likely to succeed in building a government.

The leading option for a coalition has been a proposal by Rivlin for a unity government in which power would be equally divided between Netanyahu- and Gantz-led blocs, with each of the two men serving two years as prime minister. As Netanyahu is currently facing charges in three corruption probes, Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that he would take an open-ended leave of absence if one or more indictments is handed down. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

Both Blue and White and the secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, headed by Avigdor Liberman who is in the kingmaker position, have called for a unity government alongside Likud but without Netanyahu’s bloc of religious parties. Gantz’s party has also called for Netanyahu to step down as head of Likud due to the possible indictments, saying it will not serve under a prime minister facing grave charges of criminal wrongdoing.

Blue and White has said a unity government with Likud could be formed “within an hour” if Netanyahu steps down.

Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Netanyahu will not request an extension, there is no point in that, because Blue and White is not willing to sit down [for negotiations],” Likud MK David Bitan, the former coalition whip, told the Kan public broadcaster Sunday morning.

“There is no point in agreeing to something further, as long as they don’t agree on the basis which is a unity government headed by Netanyahu,” Bitan added. “We are waiting for Blue and White to come to their senses and show up for negotiations.”

The deadlocked coalition talks have increased the possibility that Israel could head to elections, the third within a year.

Likud MK David Bitan at the Knesset on July 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Blue and White wants elections because they believe if Netanyahu is indicted, their result in the next vote will be better. They are insisting on their interpretation of unity and aren’t backing down,” he charged.

Netanyahu on Thursday extended a new proposal to Gantz to join a unity government that includes the premier’s Likud party and his allies on the religious right.

The offer was quickly dismissed by Gantz as disingenuous, with the Blue and White leader saying Netanyahu “is not seeking unity but immunity,” in a reference to the prime minister’s insistence on retaining the premiership — allegedly so as to avoid having to step down if he is indicted.

The suggestion is based on Rivlin’s proposal for a power-sharing government. It would maintain the status quo on matters of religion and state for a year, while moving forward on a compromise for military conscription for the ultra-Orthodox — an issue that derailed efforts to form a government following April’s national vote.

Netanyahu did not offer a reconsideration of his insistence that the government include the ultra-Orthodox and hard-right parties — a major impediment for Blue and White.

Gantz dismissed the proposal as “an offer I couldn’t not refuse.” He added: “Even now [Netanyahu] is unwilling to engage in direct negotiations and to acknowledge the fact that the majority of Israeli citizens voted for a liberal unity government, without the extremists.”

Netanyahu has charged that Gantz intends to form a minority government with outside support from the mostly Arab Joint List alliance, warning such a move would endanger Israel’s security.

“Establishing a minority government that relies on the Joint List is an anti-Zionist act that endangers our security,” Netanyahu wrote on Facebook on Friday, accusing Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi of supporting Palestinian terror groups and Hezbollah.

Recently, the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily floated claims that Blue and White, which won 33 seats in September’s elections, could seek to create a 44-seat minority government supported from the outside by the Joint List (13 seats) and Yisrael Beytenu (8 seats).

Members of the Joint List Ayman Odeh, left, and Ahmad Tibi consult with President Reuven Rivlin on who should form the the next government, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)

But at no point since last month’s election has Gantz expressed any intention of forming the reported minority coalition with Labor (6 seats) and, possibly, the Democratic Camp (5 seats).

Netanyahu’s comments also come after an unsourced TV report Thursday that said Gantz was looking at convincing Liberman to support the minority government option.

Channel 13 said Gantz is reportedly planning to invite representatives of Yisrael Beytenu and Likud to talks on forming a unity government if he is tasked with forming a coalition next week.

Gantz does not expect Likud to show up, however, which he hopes will open the door for Liberman to let him form a minority government, the report said.

Likud’s absence would give Liberman justification to blame Netanyahu’s party for preventing the establishment of a unity government. Liberman would be able to say that one side, Gantz’s Blue and White, had accepted his blueprint for a unity government, while the other, Netanyahu’s Likud, had not.

Gantz would then aim to form a minority government that would secure a Knesset majority with the backing, from outside the coalition, of Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties.

There was no official confirmation of this or any other of this week’s welter of unsourced TV reports on the possible coalition machinations.

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