Right-wing urges Rivlin to tap Netanyahu to form gov’t as Gantz’s time runs down

Move comes after president said he’ll return mandate to Knesset without tasking anyone if no deal by Monday; petition seeks to take PM out of running due to his corruption charges

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The right-wing religious bloc backing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday urged President Reuven Rivlin to give the Likud leader a shot at forming a government, after Blue and White head Benny Gantz’s request for a two-week extension to form a government was rejected.

In a statement, the heads of the Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Yamina parties called on Rivlin to “transfer the mandate to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has 59 recommendations, just like after the previous elections in September when you transferred the mandate to MK Benny Gantz when he had only 54 recommendations.”

The tally of 59 MKs includes the right-wing parties and Orly Levy-Abekasis, who last month defected from the left-wing Labor-Meretz-Gesher union and on Sunday declared that she would support Netanyahu for the premiership.

Rivlin had said earlier Sunday that he would leave it to the Knesset to pick a candidate for prime minister should the sides fail to come together in a unity government by Monday night, when Gantz’s mandate expires.

The religious right-wing Yamina Party, which found itself at odds with Blue and White during the now-stagnating coalition talks, urged Gantz to give up key coalition demands on the judiciary and sign on to a unity government.

A meeting of the heads of the bloc of parties supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), January 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

In a statement, Yamina said Blue and White should drop its demand for the Justice Ministry, which Netanyahu had reportedly agreed to cede, as well as its demand for a say in judge selection, and “allow annexation of all settlements to begin immediately.”

“Gantz, there’s no shame in giving in. As someone who heads a faction of 17 seats against a bloc of 59, your demands are illogical and illegitimate by any democratic logic,” the six-seat Yamina said.

It is unclear if Rivlin would even be able to transfer the mandate to Netanyahu, given the Likud leader’s indictment in three corruption cases, and in light of a petition filed Sunday with the High Court of Justice against tasking him with forming a government.

The petition, filed by 117 high-tech, business, security and education professionals, came minutes after Rivlin announced he would not extend Gantz’s mandate to form a government and suggested he would not transfer the mandate to Netanyahu.

Sunday’s petition was not the first time Israel’s top court has been asked to rule on whether Netanyahu should be allowed to form a government. The High Court dismissed two similar petitions earlier this year, saying it was “premature” to rule on the matter; however, it is believed that this time the court will issue a ruling.

Israeli law requires cabinet ministers facing criminal indictment to resign from their cabinet posts, but there is no such stipulation for a prime minister.

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

Netanyahu’s trial was due to commence on March 17 but was delayed due to restrictions on Israel’s courts as part of measures to combat the coronavirus, which were brought in by Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist. The trial is instead slated to begin on May 24.

Rivlin’s refusal to grant Gantz a 14-day extension to form a government came after speaking with Gantz and Netanyahu. The prime minister, according to a statement from the President’s Residence, said the parties were not close to signing a coalition agreement.

Rivlin said that if the two leaders don’t sign an agreement by midnight Monday, he would ask Knesset members to recommend one of their peers to receive the mandate to form a government. The first MK to receive more than 61 recommendations would then be tasked by Rivlin.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz delivers a statement in Tel Aviv, March 7, 2020 after receiving the mandate to form a government. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

But the Likud party urged the president to immediately grant Netanyahu the mandate, saying he is “the head of the largest party in the Knesset with 59 recommendations, just as President Rivlin acted after the previous elections in September, when he transferred the mandate from Prime Minister Netanyahu to MK Gantz.”

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

The negotiations had previously 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.

Netanyahu faces seven counts of three criminal charges: fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. He denies the allegations and says he is the victim of an attempted political coup by the opposition, police and state prosecutors. His trial was due to start on March 17, but was postponed to May amid the coronavirus crisis.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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