PM says he's slightly less unable than Gantz to win majority

Rivlin tasks Netanyahu with forming next government after unity talks fail

Likud leader calls for ‘joint leadership’ with Gantz, citing Iran and Trump plan; Blue and White chief rules out coalition with PM facing indictment

President Reuven Rivlin, right  tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, during a press conference at the President's Residence, in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
President Reuven Rivlin, right tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, during a press conference at the President's Residence, in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday tasked Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud party leader, with forming Israel’s next government, after efforts to foster talks on a unity coalition between the prime minister and Blue and White chief Benny Gantz failed to bear fruit.

Standing alongside Netanyahu in the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Rivlin said that though neither the Likud head nor Gantz had the support of a majority of lawmakers, the premier had a better shot at forming a government.

“For me the only question is who has the best possibility to form a coalition. In this situation, 55 MKs supported Netanyahu and 54 supported Gantz. But 10 of those from the Joint List said they would not sit with Gantz, whereas the full bloc of 55 said they would support Netanyahu,” Rivlin said at his official residence, summing up his round of consultations with the various Knesset parties.

“So the chance of the prime minister to form a coalition is higher,” he said.

Rivlin called for an end to parties boycotting “segments of society” and individual lawmakers as potential coalition partners, saying that such conditions were preventing the formation of a government and, if not withdrawn, would precipitate an unprecedented third election in less than a year.

“It doesn’t matter who I task first with building a government, or who, if necessary and appropriate, I task second,” Rivlin said. “Unless the ruling out and boycotting of entire segments of Israeli society comes to an end, as long as there is no motivation to create new alliances between parties big and small, until there is a genuine will to reach agreements, to compromise, there will be no government.”

“Anyone who reads a newspaper knows what I am talking about. I therefore offered both candidates to form a joint, equal government,” he added.

President Reuven Rivlin, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive for a press conference to give Netanyahu the mandate to form a new government, held at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The president said that he proposed to Gantz and Netanyahu a legal change to the position of “interim prime minister” that would grant the office holder “full power” in the case the prime minister cannot carry out his duties.

“As long as the prime minister is unavailable, his role will be preserved and he will return to it when he is able to. That was my proposal and that is what I suggest,” Rivlin said.

Such a change could theoretically allow Netanyahu to take a leave of absence if he is formally charged in the trio of graft cases against him, enabling Gantz to avoid serving in a government with a prime minister who is under indictment. Netanyahu is facing a hearing next week with the attorney general, ahead of a decision in the cases against him.

He also proposed lengthening the period for which a prime minister could take leave without surrendering his job beyond the current 100 day maximum. And he said he had suggested a “paritetic” government arrangement, under which all government authority would be equally distributed between the two rival parties.

Rivlin said he conditioned giving Netanyahu the mandate to form a government on him committing to returning the mandate if he fails, rather than call new elections. After failing to form a government following the previous elections in April, Netanyahu pushed through a vote to dissolve the Knesset and call a snap poll, rather than have Gantz get a crack at building a coalition.

The president also told Netanyahu the Israeli public doesn’t want another round of elections, after going to the polls twice in just over five months.

“If there is no government, the public will pay the price and the price is heavier than any other,” he said.

Speaking after Rivlin, Netanyahu said the only option was a unity coalition with Blue and White, adding that Israel needed a new government “now and fast” to address the challenges facing Israel.

“First is the security challenge — we see the chutzpah of Iran,” he said, pointing to the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities blamed on Tehran and its backing for terror groups in countries bordering Israel.

“This is not spin. I’m not making it up. There is a real challenge in front of us. To face it we need to unite forces to that the people can be united and prepared.”

He also said Israel needs a “broad” government “to build a strong, unbreakable economy” in light of security threats and to deal with US President Donald Trump’s peace plan upon its release, which he said presented an “opportunity to set our eastern border and ensure our national security.”

“All three of those require a broad national government. With a joint leadership,” he said. “We can create a government like that immediately.”

He also told Rivlin that while he may not have clear shot at cobbling together a coalition, he has less of a chance at failing to do so than Gantz.

“I accept the task you gave me, with the knowledge that I don’t have a better chance at forming a government, but rather, let’s say my inability to do so is a little smaller than that of MK Gantz,” he said.

As Netanyahu was finishing speaking, Gantz put out a statement declaring his commitment to unity, while accusing Likud of scuttling the talks with Blue and White. He said the ruling party was also negotiating on behalf of its “bloc” of right-wing religious allies, who agreed they would only enter a government together.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L), President Reuven Rivlin (C) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meet at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“Blue and White under my leadership won’t agree to sit in a government whose head is facing a grave indictment. This issue, alongside other elements of principle, is more important to us than discussions about divvying up portfolios or a rotation [of the premiership],” Gantz said.

As Netanyahu and Gantz met at the President’s Residence, a Likud source placed the blame for the failed effort to jumpstart talks on a unity government on Blue and White’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, who has a rotation agreement with Gantz to replace him as prime minister after 2.5 years.

“The sole reason the contacts toward unity are stuck is because Yair Lapid is prepared to drag the country to additional elections, just not to see Benny Gantz as prime minister,” the source told the Ynet news site.

In response, Lapid declared Gantz would end up being the next prime minister and took a swipe at Netanyahu over his legal woes.

“Benny Gantz will be prime minister and Bibi [Netanyahu] will go deal with his criminal cases. The transparent attempts by Likud to sow conflict [in Blue and White] don’t impress anyone among us,” Lapid tweeted.

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