Likud wants to extend 55-strong pact for extra 21 days

Report: PM’s allies refuse to declare they’ll back him right up to new election

During meeting of rightist/Orthodox bloc supporting Netanyahu, Yamina MKs Smotrich and Bennett said to agree to remain outside coalition if they’re the obstacle to unity government

Rafi Peretz, left, Bezalel Smotrich, center, and Ayelet Shaked, right, at the Yamina party headquarters on election night in Ramat Gan, September 17, 2019. (Flash90)
Rafi Peretz, left, Bezalel Smotrich, center, and Ayelet Shaked, right, at the Yamina party headquarters on election night in Ramat Gan, September 17, 2019. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious allies on Wednesday reportedly refused to sign a declaration that they will continue to exclusively back the Likud leader as their candidate for prime minister if both he and a second candidate fail to form a coalition.

By law, if the first candidate tasked by the president with forming a government fails to do so within the allotted timeframe of six weeks, the president can task a second candidate with attempting to do so — with the latter given only four weeks. If this effort fails as well, there is a 21-day period in which 61 MKs can give their backing to a candidate, before a new election must be called.

After failing to secure a majority of Knesset seats in the elections last month, Likud formed a pact with the national-religious Yamina alliance and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, declaring they would only enter a government together and would back Netanyahu for prime minister.

Netanyahu was tasked last week by President Reuven Rivlin with putting together a majority coalition. If he fails to do so, his rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, would seek to do so. If Gantz also fails, Rivlin could seek a third candidate. If, after 21 days, this effort also fails, Rivlin would initiate a process leading to new elections.

During the party leaders’ meeting with Netanyahu on Wednesday morning, minister Ze’ev Elkin of Likud, who is leading coalition negotiation efforts, suggested that members of the 55-MK bloc supporting the premier sign a document obligating them to continue backing Netanyahu during that final 21-day period.

But representatives of the Yamina party and United Torah Judaism did not agree to do so, according to Channel 12.

Likud ministers Yariv Levin (R) and Ze’ev Elkin and Yoram Turbowicz of Blue and White at talks in Jerusalem on forming a government, September 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud officials told Walla news Wednesday night that Netanyahu’s allies remained united behind him and had simply argued that with negotiations with Blue and White underway, now was not an opportune time for such declarations.

Also during the meeting, Yamina’s Bezalel Smotrich and Naftali Bennett reportedly said they would be willing to support a unity government from the outside if their membership in such a government was the main obstacle to its formation.

The two said preventing a third election was more important than their membership in the government, Channel 12 reported.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Netanyahu and his allies reaffirmed that they would continue to act as a united bloc, and blamed the impasse in coalition talks on the rival Blue and White party.

Likud said the party leaders did not decide on whether or when Netanyahu will tell Rivlin that his efforts to form a coalition had failed. The prime minister’s party has intimated such a decision could come as soon as this week, well ahead of the deadline.

Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet with Gantz Wednesday evening, but the centrist party canceled the meeting late Tuesday, saying there were no signs that the premier was truly interested in reaching a power-sharing compromise.

Likud and Blue and White have accused each other of intransigence in the coalition talks and claimed that the other side was pushing the country toward a third election in under a year.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman speaks to press while touring the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv on election day, September 17, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The pact uniting the 55-MK bloc backing Netanyahu has been a major sticking point in negotiations with Blue and White, which campaigned on forming a secular unity government and ruled out joining a coalition under Netanyahu due to the pending corruption indictment against him.

Netanyahu is set to meet Thursday morning with Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman to discuss his proposal for a unity government.

Earlier Wednesday, Liberman had said that “if by Yom Kippur [next Tuesday evening] there is no breakthrough, Yisrael Beytenu will present its own offer to the two factions [Likud and Blue and White].”

But he made clear Wednesday evening that his opposition to a coalition including the full 55-MK bloc of Netanyahu’s supporters, including the two ultra-Orthodox parties, remained implacable.

Despite his legal woes, Netanyahu was tasked by Rivlin last week with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a bloc of 55 MKs, and given 28 days to do so.

Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties, but the 10 Arab MKs in that group would not join a Gantz-led coalition. Neither candidate has a clear path to a 61-strong Knesset majority without the other.

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rivlin had suggested a unity government in which power would be equally divided and Netanyahu and Gantz would each serve two years as prime minister. Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

But the two parties, among other issues, have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.

If nothing changes in the parties’ positions, Netanyahu is expected to tell Rivlin that he is unable to form a majority government. This will likely lead to Gantz being given a chance to form a coalition.

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