Rivlin said set Wednesday night to tap Netanyahu to try to form coalition

Likud and Blue and White leaders meeting for dinner with president as his unity push appears hopeless

President Reuven Rivlin (center) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin (center) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin is set Wednesday evening to ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try form the next government, according to reports in Hebrew-language media, as unity negotiations between the ruling Likud party and their Blue and White rivals appeared certain to fail.

Party sources quoted by media outlets said the president would delegate the formidable task to Netanyahu if there was no meaningful progress in the unity negotiations by Wednesday evening, when Rivlin has summoned the two-would-be prime ministers to his residence for dinner to again discuss a potential unity government.

The President’s Residence confirmed that Rivlin would announce his choice of candidate at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

Negotiations between representatives from the two parties took place Tuesday after Netanyahu met Blue and White chief Gantz Monday night and agreed to explore unity talks. However, they have gotten stuck on a number of issues,  including who would be prime minister first in a rotation government, and whether Likud’s right-wing and religious rivals would also be included.

Rivlin received the official results from the deadlocked September 17 election on Wednesday afternoon, beginning the one-week deadline for him to name someone to attempt to form a government.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) receives the official results from the elections for the 22nd Knesset from Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, the head of the Central Elections Committee, at his official residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The task of choosing a candidate for prime minister after national elections is usually a formality, but it is far more complicated this time since neither Gantz nor Netanyahu has a clear path to building a stable parliamentary majority.

The final results published on Wednesday saw Netanyahu’s Likud gain a seat to reach 32 of the 120 Knesset seats, one behind Gantz’s rival Blue and White party.

But since Likud’s gain came at the expense of an allied ultra-Orthodox party, it doesn’t change the total number of 55 lawmakers who support Netanyahu against the 54 who back Gantz.

With Avigdor Liberman refusing to let his eight seats endorse either candidate, both Netanyahu and Gantz remain short of the required 61-seat majority.

Speculation has run rampant over whether Rivlin will tap Netanyahu or Gantz this week, or wait until after the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which falls on Monday and Tuesday.

Members of the Joint List meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, September 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In either case, the person selected will face what could turn out to be an impossible mission: forming a stable coalition that wins and retains majority support in the new Knesset.

Gantz insists he should serve first as prime minister in any unity government and has vowed not to partner with Likud so long as Netanyahu is at the helm, citing the prime minister’s legal predicament.

Netanyahu, seeking protection from prosecution, believes he should remain as prime minister and has signed a deal with his smaller allies, including ultra-Orthodox parties, to negotiate as a “bloc.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has recommended charging Netanyahu with a series of corruption-related charges and is expected to make a final decision following a hearing with the prime minister set for October 2.

Wednesday night’s meeting with Rivlin, Netanyahu and Gantz will be their second since the election, and the president has repeatedly made clear he would like to see their two parties in a unity government.

He has pledged to do all he can to avoid yet another election — which would be the third in a year’s time after April polls also ended inconclusively.

“I therefore believe that the right path for the State of Israel today is to build as broad a governing coalition as possible,” Rivlin said at a Wednesday reception for foreign diplomats to mark the Jewish new year.

“It’s my opinion. I’m trying to do my best,” he said.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (right) meets with Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman on September 23, 2019. (Elad Malka)

The timing in any rotation agreement between the two rival leaders is especially important for Netanyahu given his legal predicament. Under Israeli law, a prime minister does not have to step down if indicted — only if convicted with all appeals exhausted — while other ministers can be forced to do so when charged.

Once a candidate is chosen by the president, they have 28 days to present a coalition to the new Knesset and win a vote of confidence. Rivlin is allowed to extend that period by up to 14 days. If that candidate fails, the second-most likely candidate is given a shot at forming a coalition.

If the second candidate also fails to form a majority government, new elections are called, unless 61 Knesset members write to the president and ask him to assign the task to a particular Knesset member.

Meanwhile, Yisrael Beitenu chief Avigdor Liberman continued to call on Gantz and Netanyahu to reach an agreement to end the political impasse and prevent a third election.

Liberman, whose secularist party has refused to endorse either of the front-runners, is insisting on a broad, secular unity government that excludes the ultra-Orthodox parties — Netanyahu’s long-time partners.

“History has shown us that when he wants to be, Netanyahu is the most flexible man in the world,” Liberman posted on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon. “I hope he utilizes that same flexibility in the negotiations and stops playing the blame game about whose fault a third election would be.”

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