Amid a deadlock in coalition negotiations that has threatened fresh elections, opposition lawmakers on Monday night said that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to form a government by the Wednesday deadline, another lawmaker should get the chance to muster the support of 61 Knesset members before Israel goes to a snap vote.
The statements came after Netanyahu admitted that he had failed to secure an agreement with Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, and urged him to reconsider, 48 hours ahead of a Wednesday deadline to announce a new coalition.
Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party that — like Likud — won 35 seats in the 120-member parliament, quipped that Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition was only due to his legal woes and determination to secure himself immunity from prosecution, thwarting any option for cooperation between Israel’s two biggest parties.
“Bibi could have stepped down and tomorrow there would be a functioning government here,” Gantz tweeted, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “But that is how it is when everything serves the legal fortress, when the benefit of the citizen is always a minor consideration.”
Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners, and progress has stalled amid an impasse between the secular Yisrael Beytenu party and ultra-Orthodox parties on the question of a bill regulating the military draft among the ultra-Orthodox.
Liberman has repeatedly said he backs Netanyahu for prime minister, but will only join the government if there is a commitment to pass, unaltered, a version of the bill promoted during the previous Knesset. That draft of the bill is opposed by ultra-Orthodox parties, which want to soften its terms. Netanyahu needs both Yisrael Beytenu and the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority government.
“A month and a half ago the people voted in favor of a right-wing government headed by me,” Netanyahu said in a statement to reporters on Monday night, referring to the April 9 elections. “I’m making all efforts to prevent unnecessary and wasteful elections that will cost billions of shekels. There’s no reason to do so and paralyze the country for another half a year. There are excellent solutions, and if there’s a will [the crisis] can be solved within two minutes.”
Criticizing that remark, Gantz said: “What is another evening of stagnation compared to 13 years [of Netanyahu rule]? This is deceit and wasting of the public’s time.”
“Tonight, again, the only thing that interests Bibi is Bibi,” said Blue and White’s No. 2, Yair Lapid. “The only decisions he makes are geared toward organizing a ‘get out of jail’ card for himself. That is why there is still no government.
“If we go to elections, it is because of Bibi,” Lapid added, calling for a coalition that includes both Likud and Blue and White — without the current premier. “We can and need a unity government without Netanyahu. That is what Israel needs.”
The centrist party has no clear path to forming a government without Likud, as it has ruled out an alliance with Arab lawmakers, and ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties — including Yisrael Beytenu — have said they will not join a Blue and White government.
Labor party Avi Gabbay also called for another MK to be tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a government.
“If someone doesn’t manage to form a government, you task someone else. There is an orderly procedure. Only one person can be prime minister? This is one big bluff,” Gabbay said at the Knesset.
Fellow Labor member MK Itzik Shmuli promised in a statement that the party will “act vigorously so that before we head to elections, another candidate will receive the mandate to try and form a government.”
Earlier Monday, the parliament in a preliminary vote passed a decision to dissolve the Knesset, with 65 lawmakers voting in favor of the decision, 43 opposing it, and six MKs abstaining.
The Likud-spearheaded bill — which had to be submitted as a private member bill, since there is no government — requires three more votes to trigger snap elections.
Holding two elections at such a short interval would be unprecedented in Israel, and there have been concerns over the cost and prolonged political paralysis that would ensue.
The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, each won eight seats in the April 9 poll. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties won five. Together with Likud, these parties hold 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Netanyahu also needs the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, with its five seats, for a majority.
Netanyahu faces a Wednesday night deadline to form a coalition. But should he fail to build a coalition by then or dissolve the Knesset, the prime minister may be able to buy himself another 14 more days, exercising a never-before-used legal provision, analysts say.
As the deadline expires — and should the Knesset remain intact — Rivlin would be able to task another lawmaker with forming the government. But since the prevailing assessment is that nobody else would be able to secure the 61-seat majority needed, that scenario too would likely lead to fresh Knesset elections, months after the April 9 vote.
In October, the prime minister will have a hearing to answer pending charges of fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases and bribery in one of them.
Marissa Newman and AFP contributed to this report.