The prospect of Israel being forced to a third round of elections within 12 months is growing increasingly realistic, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inclined to announce as soon as next week that he cannot form a majority, and the rival Blue and White party aware that it is unlikely to break apart Netanyahu’s Likud party, Israeli TV reports said Friday night.
Both of Israel’s main TV stations reported that Netanyahu, who was charged by President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday night with the task of trying to muster a Knesset majority, and has 28 days to try, with the possibility of 14 more days if needed, is set to announce as soon as next week that he cannot do so, and will blame rival candidate Benny Gantz’s Blue and White for the failure. Both Channels 12 and 13 said Netanyahu is set to “return the mandate” immediately after the Rosh Hashanah Jewish new year festival, which runs from Sunday evening to Tuesday night.
Rivlin would probably then invite Gantz to try to build a majority, but his Blue and White party considers it extremely unlikely that Knesset members from Netanyahu’s Likud would revolt against their leader, and thus see no real path for Gantz to form a government.
Israel held elections on September 17 after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following elections on April 9. Then, as now, the fiercely secular Yisrael Beytenu party of Avigdor Liberman refused to join a coalition with ultra-Orthodox members. Netanyahu heads a 55-MK bloc of ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties.
Gantz heads a bloc of 54 centrist, left-wing and Arab politicians. Three other Arab politicians are backing no prime ministerial candidate and Liberman, who insists on backing only a “liberal, nationalist” coalition including both Likud and Blue and White, holds the balance of power between the Netanyahu- and Gantz-led blocs.
In negotiations that continued on Friday without a breakthrough, Likud representatives said they would accept a proposal by Rivlin for a unity government in which Netanyahu and Gantz would rotate the premiership, holding the job for two years each.
Blue and White, however, vowed to voters that it would not sit in a coalition with Likud so long as Netanyahu, who faces indictment in three criminal cases, leads his party. Rivlin’s proposal would provide for Netanyahu to take a temporary leave of absence because of his legal troubles, with Gantz stepping in as “interim prime minister” with full prime ministerial power.
TV reports on Friday night suggested that, under the proposal, Netanyahu and his family would continue to reside in the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street even if he took a leave of absence.
While Likud negotiators told their Blue and White rivals in coalition talks Friday that they were prepared to accept Rivlin’s framework, they did not specify when or even if Netanyahu would agree to take a leave of absence, the Channel 13 report said. Israeli legal precedent suggests that a prime minister might not have to step down if indicted, but rather could continue to hold power through a trial, and even after a conviction, until all appeal processes had been exhausted.
The TV reports said some of Gantz’s advisers were urging him to accept Rivlin’s proposal and agree on a unity government with Netanyahu, but that his No. 2, Yair Lapid, was adamant that he should not. Lapid, and a second Blue and White leader, Gabi Ashkenazi, were adamant that Gantz would be “falling into a trap,” Channel 12 news reported, and that, whatever was agreed, Netanyahu would find a way to avoid relinquishing the prime ministership.
The talks Friday made no clear progress, and the sides agreed to meet again on Sunday.
Blue and White reportedly demanded in the talks that any new government legislate to ensure that no future prime minister could serve under an indictment, and to impose term limits on the position of prime minister. Blue and White is also calling to institute civil marriage in Israel.
Netanyahu, who faces fraud and breach of trust charges in three cases, and bribery in one of them, is scheduled for a hearing next Wednesday with the attorney general, his last opportunity to avoid prosecution.
Netanyahu, who denies all the charges and claims he is the victim of a political witch hunt involving the media, the opposition, the police and state prosecutors, on Thursday urged Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to allow his pre-indictment hearing to be broadcast live, but Mandelblit rejected the “unprecedented” suggestion, labeling it a media stunt.
Zvi Hauser, an MK for Blue and White, said Friday that Netanyahu is choosing “immunity over unity” by demanding that his entire bloc of 55 supporters be part of any future coalition, thus dooming any serious prospect of a partnership with Blue and White. Netanyahu has been widely expected to try to win Knesset immunity from prosecution if he can form a new coalition, and possibly to then seek legislation preventing the Supreme Court from overturning such immunity. His failure to win a clear majority in April and again last week has complicated that effort.
A Channel 12 survey Friday night, meanwhile, found that 52% believe Netanyahu should stand down as Likud leader to enable a unity government to be formed, while 34% said he should not.
The same survey found that 32% of respondents believe Gantz won the elections, 19% think Netanyahu won and 49% think neither leader won.
It found 40% thought Gantz should serve first as prime minister in a unity government, with 38% preferring Netanyahu.
Only 23% favored further elections to break the deadlock, with 63% wanting the rival parties to compromise on their positions to enable a unity government.
Some 33% blamed Netanyahu for the deadlock, compared to 20% blaming Gantz, and 25% holding the rivals equally to blame.
If Israel did head to new elections, 64% said their vote would not change, 11% said it would, and 11% said they wouldn’t vote.
The survey questioned a representative sample of 505 Israelis with a 4.4% margin of error.
After Netanyahu failed to piece together a coalition following the April 9 election, he forced a new vote to avoid letting Gantz have a chance at forming the government. The second election was held on September 17, but voters delivered an even more deadlocked result.
Gantz’s Blue and White won 33 seats, ahead of Likud’s 32 out of a total 120 seats in the Knesset. Neither has a clear path to a majority coalition.
After the two leaders failed to agree on a unity government in meetings convened by Rivlin earlier this week, the president on Wednesday gave Netanyahu the first chance to cobble together a coalition.
Rivling stressed Wednesday that Israelis do not want a third round of elections, saying “the public will pay the price” of a failure by Netanyahu and Gantz to find common ground.