Opening PM consultation talks, Rivlin tells Likud ‘the people expect unity’

Blue and White representatives rule out unity government during first-ever live broadcast of consultations over who should be tasked with forming the next coalition

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Members of  the Likud party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019, as Rivlin began consulting political leaders to decide who to task with trying to form a new government (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Members of the Likud party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019, as Rivlin began consulting political leaders to decide who to task with trying to form a new government (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Kicking off consultations over who should be tasked with forming the next government, President Reuven Rivlin told representatives of the Likud party Monday morning “the people expect unity” and that the right-wing party should play a key role in bridging divisions within Israeli society, regardless of the identity of the next prime minister.

He also quizzed the centrist Blue and White party on whether it would entertain the notion of sitting in a government not led by its party leader Benny Gantz — an option firmly ruled out by the centrist faction.

Following last week’s national election, Rivlin will meet Monday and Tuesday with leaders and senior representatives of all of the 11 parties that won Knesset seats in last week’s elections, to receive their recommendations for who should get the first opportunity at assembling a ruling majority.

Rivlin seems certain to entrust the task of forming a government to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is likely to be able to build a coalition of up to 65 seats comprising Likud (36 seats), the ultra-Orthodox Shas (eight seats), United Torah Judaism (seven), Union of Right-Wing Parties (five), Kulanu (four), and, maybe, Yisrael Beytenu (five).

By contrast Benny Gantz’s Blue and White — having all but ruled out partnering with the two Arab Israeli parties, Ra’am-Balad and Ta’al-Hadash (and all but been ruled out by them) — can rely only on the backing of Labor and Meretz despite having won 35 seats. While the results put it just behind Likud, its 35 seats increase only to a mere 45 with the backing of the center-left and left-wing parties.

After an election campaign that saw Likud accuse Rivlin of planning on “subverting the will of the people” by choosing a candidate other than Netanyahu to lead the next government, the president opened his talks by stressing to the party’s senior representatives that his role was that of an emissary of the people.

Members of the Likud party arrive to meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019, as Rivlin began consulting political leaders to decide who to task with trying to form a new government after the results of the country’s general election were announced a few days ago. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I said before the elections and I repeat now — a president does not choose a prime minister, not one person among the citizens of the country chooses a prime minister, but the sovereign chooses a prime minister and the sovereign is the people,” he told Likud ministers Yariv Levin and Miri Regev and former coalition chair David Bitan, who were representing the party in the talks.

After the president makes his selection — who as Rivlin said does not necessarily need to have received the most recommendations or be the head of the largest party — this chosen MK will then have 28 days to form a government, with the possibility of a two-week extension at the discretion of the president.

Unsurprisingly, Tourism Minister Levin told Rivlin that the Likud party “wishes to recommend Benjamin Netanyahu, as the person who won the broadest trust and the broadest public support, to form the next government.”

Levin added that “we ended a difficult election campaign and we set out to form a stable government that could lead the country for four more years.”

Journalists watching a live feed of President Reuven Rivlin’s consultations in the next room with political leaders to decide who to task with trying to form a new government, at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For the first time, the recommendations were broadcast live, a decision the president’s office announced last week “in the name of transparency” and “in a historic and pioneering decision.”

After hearing from the Likud representatives why they felt that Netanyahu was best suited to lead the next government, Rivlin said that the party must consider its role in uniting the people — which could signal his preference for a national unity government to be formed.

“The entire nation wants to see a more courageous unity even when there are disagreements among the people,” Rivlin told them.

It is indeed within Rivlin’s constitutional powers to deliver both Gantz and Netanyahu an ultimatum: Agree to a national unity government, dividing the premiership by rotation, or see your opponent get the first crack at premier.

Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Noam Revkin Fenton, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rivlin also asked the Likud representatives what they think he may do if the incumbent prime minister does not receive 61 or more recommendations, a majority of the 120-seat Knesset.

Levin responded that he thought the president would take into consideration “the fact that Likud received more votes, more seats and more recommendations, even if not a majority.”

Referring to looming corruption charges widely expected to be brought against Netanyahu in the coming months, pending a hearing, Culture Minister Miri Regev said the people made clear that they want him to remain prime minister regardless.

“He received the public’s trust on a personal level, and Likud received 36 seats for the first time in many years… This means that the conscious public has spoken clearly,” Regev said.

Netanyahu is assembling what some have described as an “indictment coalition” that could prove loyal throughout a legal hearing process and even — if an indictment is served — while he stands trial in the Jerusalem District Court.

Speculation has swirled that he may use his newfound political strength to advance legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister. He has been reported to be considering conditioning entry to his new government on support for either a so-called French Law, sheltering a sitting prime minister from prosecution, or altering parliamentary immunity laws to automatically protect him from charges. He could also use the existing immunity law — asking his fellow MKs to grant him immunity on the basis of an indictment ostensibly being served in bad faith — for which he would need a simple majority in the Knesset House Committee and then again in the Knesset plenum.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and President Reuven Rivlin attend a memorial event for fallen IDF soldiers in Jerusalem, April 14, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In a light vein, Rivlin told Regev that Likud “actually got 38 seats in 2003” — the last election it ran under a leader other than Netanyahu — and that 36 was “the best result since it got 12 in 2006,” after Netanyahu became chairman.

Blue and White rules out unity government

After the Likud party came representatives from Blue and White, who also unsurprisingly recommended their chairman Benny Gantz for prime minister.

Opening his comments to the second-largest party, Rivlin noted that “these were stormy elections, which on many occasions pierced the hearts of many of the citizens of the State of Israel,” and said that “many people in Israel want to see an attempt at coming closer together.”

Rivlin told the Blue and White representatives that “I don’t want to use the word unity in the political sense — I am talking about unity among the people — but they want to see us all working together as one people.”

Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, elected to the Knesset and number three on Blue and White’s slate, told Rivlin that the centrist party wanted to lead a process of reconciliation.

Members of the Blue and White party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The elections were indeed stormy, but the sovereign said his word,” said Ashkenazi, adding the Blue and White would respect the election results and the president’s decision.

Citing “great challenges facing the country,” Rivlin asked Ashkenazi if Blue and White would be willing to sit in a government “not headed by the person you recommended,” a clear reference to Netanyahu.

Ashkenzi responded: “We are not surprised that you are asking that question. And we have considered it but we have decided that because of the political and other considerations, we would not be able to sit in the government that you are suggesting.”

During the election campaign, Blue and White leaders said they would not sit in any government headed by Netanyahu but would consider joining Likud in a government headed by someone else.

Following Blue and White, representatives of both the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties said that as promised, they were recommending Netanyahu as prime minister.

Hadash-Ta’al representatives were set to be the last party to meet with Rivlin on Monday while Labor, Yisrael Beytenu, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Meretz, Kulanu, and Ra’am-Balad will huddle with the president on Tuesday.

Rivlin will announce his decision after receiving the official and final results of the elections from the Central Elections Committee on Wednesday.

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