Rivlin rejects Gantz bid for more time to form gov’t; may not give PM a chance

President warns if agreement between Blue and White chair and Netanyahu not reached by Monday deadline, he will ask Knesset to recommend candidate

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

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz, meeting in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz, meeting in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin will not grant Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz a 14-day extension to form a government after the deadline expires on Monday night at  midnight, his office announced Sunday, marking the first time Israel’s president has rejected such a request.

Rivlin made the decision after speaking with Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, according to a statement from the President’s Residence, said the parties were not close to signing a coalition agreement.

The statement also indicated, however, that Rivlin was not inclined to give Netanyahu an opportunity to form a coalition either, but would rather send the issue back to the Knesset — inviting the 120 MKs to try and find an agreed candidate or set Israel on course to a fourth round of elections in little more than a year.

Gantz on Saturday requested a two-week extension from Rivlin, citing the coronavirus pandemic and the Passover holiday as having caused delay in negotiations to form a government. He said he had moved towards forming a unity government with Netanyahu due to the “political, health and social crisis… even while paying a heavy political and personal price.”

Gantz’s party has been holding coalition talks with Likud to form an “emergency unity government” in which the two leaders would rotate as premier, with Netanyahu serving first. The negotiations picked up pace after Gantz was elected Knesset speaker with the backing of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc on March 26, causing the Blue and White alliance to split.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz in the Knesset, November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The question of whether Rivlin would be willing to extend Gantz’s mandate was always expected to be complex, since under Israeli law, the Knesset member tasked by the president with forming a government is the one who heads it, and the ongoing negotiations are for a government headed by Netanyahu. (A rotation agreement isn’t anchored in Israeli law, and relies on the premier who serves first voluntarily resigning after a certain period of time.)

Rivlin on Sunday, however, not only rejected Gantz’s request for an extension, but indicated he might also not give Netanyahu the chance to form a government.

“If the two do not sign an agreement by midnight tomorrow, and if the number of recommendations for each candidate does not change, the task of forming the government will return to the Knesset and a period of 21 days will begin during which Knesset members can form a majority to recommend an agreed-on candidate to form a government, who would have 14 days to do so,” the statement said.

During that time, Knesset members are able to recommend one of their peers, who agrees to be nominated, to be given the mandate to form a government. The first MK to receive more than 61 recommendations would then be tasked by Rivlin.

The statement from Rivlin’s office added: “If, during the remaining initial time given to Gantz to form a government, the circumstances change and the two sides come to the president with a request for an extension in order to help them come to an agreement, the president will reconsider his decision.”

Likud on Sunday urged Rivlin to task Netanyahu with forming a government.

In a statement to the press Saturday evening, Netanyahu called on Gantz to meet immediately at his residence along with negotiating teams to “advance negotiations.”

Blue and White said in response it would continue with the efforts to form a government but, “we’ll conduct contacts through official negotiating channels and not through the media.”

Benny Gantz, right, elbow bumps with Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Blue and White and the Likud are believed to have been on the cusp of reaching a deal this week, before Likud asked to reopen discussions on judicial appointments, leading talks to blow up.

Some commentators have speculated that Likud is stalling for time to allow Gantz’s mandate to expire, potentially weakening his bargaining position.

Blue and White said in response to Rivlin’s decision that it was working to form a unity government “as soon as possible” but would not allow Likud to dictate the terms.

“We clarified to Likud that we won’t allow any harm to the rule of law or the foundational principles we presented,” Blue and White said in a statement.

Following Rivlin’s decision, a petition was filed with the High Court of Justice on Sunday seeking to prevent Netanyahu — who is set to go on trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges next month — from forming a government.

The High Court justices, who previously refrained from weighing in, could be forced to hand down their position if Netanyahu is given a chance to cobble together a government.

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