A unity coalition proposal by President Reuven Rivlin stalled when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t commit to not seek parliamentary immunity from his corruption investigations, according to a TV report Thursday.
The Channel 13 report delineated Rivlin’s proposal for a power-sharing rotation between Netanyahu and his centrist opponent Benny Gantz following the September 17 election.
Rivlin suggested that Netanyahu would be prime minister first, but would take a leave of absence from the position when he is indicted.
Gantz reportedly demanded that Netanyahu step down when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announces his decision to indict the premier, which could come within 10 days, according to Channel 13. Netanyahu replied that he would not step down until the trial begins, a potential delay of many months. Rivlin suggested a compromise: that Netanyahu step down when the indictment is formally filed some months after Mandelblit’s announcement.
The question is politically sensitive for Gantz, who vowed ahead of the April and September elections not to sit with Netanyahu while he is under investigation or indictment.
Ordinary cabinet ministers are required to resign when indicted, but no clear precedent sets the rule for a prime minister, who under the strict letter of the law is only required to resign if he is convicted.
According to Channel 13, Gantz did not like Rivlin’s proposal because of what he saw as a potential loop-hole: that Netanyahu may try to escape indictment by asking the Knesset to confer parliamentary immunity on him.
Such a move would likely delay the indictments, and could potentially trigger a political battle in the Knesset House Committee and in the plenum that could destabilize the coalition, drive new elections – and leave Netanyahu in power and unindicted the entire time.
Gantz has reportedly demanded a commitment from Netanyahu not to seek parliamentary immunity, but he has refused. Sources close to Netanyahu have insisted that giving up his right to seek immunity would be tantamount to surrendering his right to a legal defense.
Gantz, realizing that the immunity bid could derail a coalition operated under Rivlin’s proposal midway through its term, with Netanyahu as premier, has therefore declined to pursue the president’s framework.
After Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman urged both Gantz and Netanyahu to accept the president’s proposal, Gantz told journalists Thursday he was “prepared to consider any option that will uphold my principles in terms of [Netanyahu’s] indictment.”
According to the Channel 13 report, Netanyahu initially embraced the leave of absence proposal, under which Gantz would become interim prime minister if he steps aside, quipping, “We’ll both be prime minister together.”
Rivlin reportedly corrected him sternly, saying, “There can’t be two prime ministers… When you take a leave of absence, all your [prime ministerial] authority will be removed.”
Rivlin also urged Gantz not to rule out a coalition with rightist and Haredi parties, a key demand of Gantz’s secularist allies within Blue and White and of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party.
Rivlin’s call could mean religiously conservative parties allied with Netanyahu would effectively give the Likud leader a majority at the cabinet table.
But possibly to partly address that concern, Rivlin said the principle of equal power-sharing would mean the same number of cabinet ministers for each party.
Channel 13 also reported Thursday that Attorney General Mandelblit was working around the clock to try to reach a final decision on Netanyahu’s indictment in the three corruption cases, and hoped to publicize his decision within 10 days.
Mandelblit, who served as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary and was appointed by him to the attorney general post in 2016, is widely believed to be leaning toward indicting the prime minister on corruption charges.
Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing in any of the cases, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police and the state prosecution designed to oust him from power.
Gantz has until November 20 to assemble a coalition. He was tasked by Rivlin with forming a government after Netanyahu failed to do so following general elections in September, which left both Blue and White and Likud short of a governing majority with allied parties.
Gantz’s party has previously called for Netanyahu to step down as head of Likud due to the possible indictments pending against him in three corruption cases, saying it will not serve under a prime minister facing grave charges of criminal wrongdoing. Blue and White has said a unity government with Likud could be formed “within an hour” if Netanyahu steps down.
Blue and White and Likud have regularly blamed each other for the lack of progress in negotiations and sought to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to third elections within a year. The two previous rounds of voting in April and September failed to give either party a clear path to a majority coalition.