PM’s fresh push for leadership stalls as right-wing MKs delay pledging support

PM’s fresh push for leadership stalls as right-wing MKs delay pledging support

Lawmakers refuse to sign commitment to Netanyahu until Yisrael Beytenu does; Blue and White also racing for 61 signatures; another Likud MK expresses doubts about Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) at a meeting of the 55-member union of his Likud party and other right-wing and religious parties, in the Knesset, November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) at a meeting of the 55-member union of his Likud party and other right-wing and religious parties, in the Knesset, November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Likud and Blue and White parties were both racing Sunday to gather signatures from lawmakers in a bid to win another attempt at forming a government, although it quickly became apparent that getting the required 61 signatures would probably only be possible next week.

By law, the first candidate to present President Reuven Rivlin with 61 signatures from lawmakers can ask for 14 days to build a coalition. The president’s office told The Times of Israel on Sunday morning that “the first MK to present [61 signatures] is given the mandate,” confirming that it could literally come down to a physical race. If no Knesset member succeeds in doing so by December 11, elections must be called.

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman has pledged to give his party’s signatures to both the Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White if either one makes the request, Hebrew-language media has reported. Lawmakers are allowed to sign for more than one candidate, although it isn’t clear how the president will decide whom to task with forming a coalition if two candidates reach 61 signatures at the same time.

The backing of Yisrael Beytenu’s eight lawmakers would push Netanyahu’s Likud-led right-religious bloc over the 61-signature mark, giving Netanyahu a third chance at negotiating a government in under a year. It could also hand Gantz a majority along with left-wing parties, but he would likely need the support of either the Arab-led Joint List or defectors from the Netanyahu camp to gain enough support, even with Liberman’s backing.

A form sent to members of the 55-strong right-wing bloc on Saturday night had asked them to sign a short statement backing Netanyahu and submit it by 9 a.m. Sunday, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman participates in a conference at the Israeli Institute for Democracy, in Jerusalem, on November 26, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, reports Sunday quoted Yisrael Beytenu sources as saying the party would only sign their support closer to the December 11 deadline — possibly on the very last day — in order to allow more time for unity government negotiations, meaning the current signature frenzy is likely premature.

Further supporting that thesis, National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich — normally a staunch Netanyahu ally — said he would only sign support for Netanyahu on the last day for doing so and only if it is clear that the premier has a clear path to forming a government, Hebrew-language media reported.

“This isn’t the time for spin but for real efforts to prevent elections and form a government,” Smotrich was quoted as saying in closed meetings.

New Right’s Ayelet Shaked has also reportedly refused to provide her signature, saying that was pointless before Liberman signs.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri said there was “no point” in signing, saying there was no reason to play into Liberman’s “spin.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Additionally, the question remains as to whether Rivlin can legally give the mandate to form a government to Netanyahu, after the prime minister was served with criminal charges on November 21.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ruled last week that Netanyahu can continue to serve as a caretaker prime minister, but has declined to comment thus far on whether he could be tasked with forming a government, calling it a “hypothetical question.”

On Sunday, a Blue and White source was quoted by multiple news outlets as saying that the party had accelerated its process of obtaining signatures in support of Gantz, and that it would ask Liberman to back the initiative in order to work for a unity government.

The Knesset is currently in an unprecedented period of political uncertainty following two elections that have failed to show a clear winner, leading to several unsuccessful rounds of coalition talks by both Netanyahu and Gantz.

The 120-seat parliament has until December 11 to see if any of its members — even one who had been previously tasked — can collect 61 signatures and thus be given two weeks to attempt to form a government, before it must by law dissolve itself and call new elections, likely for March 2020.

Since Likud’s Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz were unable to form a government following the September 17 election, there has been some speculation that another candidate, such as Likud’s MK Gideon Sa’ar or Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, would use the period until December 11 to gather the 61 signatures of MKs that would see them tasked with forming a coalition.

Then-interior minister Gideon Sa’ar (L) seen after handing his official letter of resignation from politics to Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, November 3, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In a Channel 12 interview Sunday morning, Sa’ar repeated his denial of claims by Netanyahu associates that he was attempting to collect signatures supporting him as prime minister in an attempted “coup” against the premier. Sa’ar said he had signed his support for Netanyahu.

“There is no question where the signatures are going, as long as the movement’s chairman is Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said. “I also signed, immediately when I was asked to. I’d be happy for Netanyahu to manage to form a government in his two weeks, although I honestly don’t see how that will happen.”

A report Sunday in the Israel Hayom daily said that Likud comptroller Shai Galili had ruled that the party secretariat had broken the law by using party resources such as the Likud spokesperson’s office and commissioning internal polls to target Sa’ar.

Accepting Sa’ar’s complaint on the matter, Galili said official Likud platforms should remain neutral on internal matters within the party.

Meanwhile, another Likud lawmaker on Sunday went on the record with his doubts over Netanyahu’s leadership.

MK Yoav Kisch, who recently lost a battle to be Likud’s faction chairman, said primaries would be a must if third elections are called, adding: “The question will be who can lead the right to power. In the end, like in soccer, the team is more important that the superstar.”

Kisch hinted that he would back Sa’ar rather than Netanyahu, and criticized the attacks on Sa’ar.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK Yoav Kisch (L) during a Likud Party faction meeting at the Knesset, January 2, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The prime minister has a problem if he fails to form a government time after time,” he said. “I’ll decide whom to vote for when the question is on the table.”

Negotiating teams between Likud and Blue and White were set to meet Sunday for more talks, though reports indicated both sides see little chance for a breakthrough.

According to reports, on the table is an offer from Likud to allow Netanyahu to stay on as prime minister for some four months, after which he would step aside and allow Gantz to take the job.

While Gantz is mulling the offer, party No. 2 Yair Lapid is stridently against it, Channel 13 news reported.

Sunday will also see Liberman meet with Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, who has recently ramped up efforts to broker a unity government.

On Thursday, Liberman announced that he had been willing to join a Netanyahu-led government, but the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox partners were unwilling to compromise on religion and state issues, in what some saw as an opening for new talks.

Liberman — who refused to join a Netanyahu government in May over disagreements with ultra-Orthodox parties on the military draft law of ultra-Orthodox students — has been pushing for a unity government of Likud, Blue and White, and Yisrael Beytenu.

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