Rivlin continues talks with parties ahead of decision on designated PM

President meets with smaller factions, a day after Joint (Arab) List recommended Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu didn’t endorse anyone

President Reuven Rivlin at a memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin at a memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin on Monday will finish his round of consultations with representatives of all newly elected Knesset parties, after which he will have to make a decision on whom to task with forming the next government.

He is expected to try to force a unity government amid a deadlock between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. As things stood Monday morning, Netanyahu appeared more likely than Gantz to be given the first chance at cobbling together a coalition.

As it stands, neither party has a path to a coalition without the other. In last Tuesday’s election, Blue and White emerged as the larger party, according to almost-final results, at 33 seats, while Likud won 31. Netanyahu heads a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc of 55 MKs. Gantz heads a bloc of 44 centrist and left-wing MKs, with another 10 from the predominantly Arab Joint List, which in a rare move recommended Gantz as prime minister on Sunday.

While 10 of the 13 Joint List lawmakers backed Gantz for prime minister, they have ruled out joining a coalition. The decision marked the first time Arab parties — separately or together — have recommended a mainstream Zionist politician since 1992, when they supported Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin, who campaigned on peace with the Palestinians.

In the kingmaker position is Yisrael Beytenu — which has vowed to force a coalition with both Likud and Blue and White — with eight seats.

Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Rivlin began his consultations with political parties on Sunday, meeting with the five largest parties to receive their recommendations on the candidate who should be tasked with assembling the next coalition.

During the talks, Blue and White and the Joint List backed Gantz, Likud and Shas nominated Netanyahu, and Yisrael Beytenu refrained from endorsing either candidate. After meeting with the remaining parties on Monday, Rivlin is expected to make a decision later this week or early next week.

Monday’s meetings with the smaller parties, unlike Sunday’s, are pretty straightforward, since all the remaining parties had previously said whom they would recommend as premier.

At 10 a.m., leaders of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party came to the President’s Residence and recommended Netanyahu, as it has repeatedly said it would do.

“As we promised, the United Torah Judaism faction is recommending Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister,” the party’s No. 2, Moshe Gafni, told Rivlin. “We do not know why the state’s citizens need to be sentenced to such a punishment for a year now, with the state paralyzed by the election campaigns. It must not continue.

“This election campaign was focused on the ultra-Orthodox public; wild incitement and lies were spread against us, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the president for his condemnation of that.”

The religious right-wing Yamina alliance, which has similarly pledged to back the incumbent leader, arrived next and also backed Netanyahu.

After that, Rivlin will meet members of the center-left Labor-Gesher and the left-wing Democratic Camp, both of which are expected to back Gantz.

As with Sunday’s consultations, the meetings are being broadcast live to the public.

MK Ahmad Tibi, center, together with members of the Joint List, holds a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Joint List’s nomination of Gantz as prime minister initially appeared likely to tip the scales in his favor and give the centrist Blue and White the first crack at forming a coalition.

However, sources in Blue and White told Hebrew-language media on Sunday night that they would prefer to pass the buck and take their shot after Netanyahu tries — and fails — to build the next government.

Likud has expressed similar willingness to have Gantz try first and fail.

On Monday the Joint List stressed that only 10 of its 13 MKs — excluding members of the Balad faction within the predominantly Arab alliance — backed Gantz’s nomination. Without Balad’s three nominating votes, Gantz would appear to have one fewer nominating seats than Netanyahu.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks during a meeting with members of the Likud party, to decide who to task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The president has the power to appoint one of the elected 120 MKs as the next potential prime minister of Israel. The designated premier must then attempt to cobble together a coalition that wins the support of a majority of Knesset members. Once a candidate is chosen by the president, that individual has 28 days to present a coalition to the new Knesset and win a vote of confidence. The president is allowed to extend that period by up to 14 days.

If the candidate fails, the second most likely candidate is given a shot at forming a coalition.

Should the second candidate fail, new elections are called, unless any of the 120 MKs musters the support of 61 lawmakers backing his leadership.

Rivlin has wide discretion with his decision, and it is entirely within his purview to try and force a unity government that includes both Likud and Blue and White. On Sunday, a senior member of the President’s Residence said Rivlin would float options not yet heard by the public.

Netanyahu last week urged Gantz to form a national unity government under his leadership that includes all members of his religious right-wing bloc. The Blue and White leader rebuffed the offer, saying he would not accept any impositions and noting his party received more seats and should therefore lead such a coalition.

Gantz has insisted that Netanyahu, who is facing a looming criminal indictment, relinquish the premiership as a condition for a Blue and White-Likud alliance. Blue and White has also vowed to form a government without the ultra-Orthodox and “extremists.”

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