Hoping to stave off a third election, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said Monday that he was encouraging the two leading political parties to join forces and form a national unity government.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing hard-liner, running for a fifth term in office, ended the Sept. 17 election with 31 seats for his Likud Party and enough support from other parties to garner a total of 55 endorsements in the 120-seat-Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Former army chief Benny Gantz, the centrist challenger, emerged with 33 seats for his Blue and White party and a total of 54 endorsements.
A total of 61 seats are required to form a government and become prime minister. Rivlin, whose position is usually ceremonial, is tasked with choosing the candidate he believes has the best chance of achieving that.
He summoned Gantz and Netanyahu to his residence on Monday evening with the aim of persuading them to join forces.
“The public does not want another election,” Rivlin said, telling the two politicians: “The responsibility for establishing a government falls on you, and the people expect you to find a solution and to prevent further elections, even if it comes at a personal and even ideological cost.”
Rivlin is reportedly proposing a “rotation agreement,” whereby Gantz and Netanyahu would each serve as prime minister for two years out of a four-year term.
Avigdor Lieberman, a former defense minister who heads the nationalist and secular Jewish Home party, told reporters a possible agreement is being held up because “both want to serve first.”
There are other obstacles as well.
Gantz promised voters he would not serve in a government alongside Netanyahu as long as a legal cloud hangs over the prime minister, who is expected to be indicted on a raft of corruption charges after a hearing scheduled for Oct. 2.
Speaking with members of his party after the meeting with Rivlin, Gantz said that “the public voted for change and we have no intention of relinquishing our leadership of it, our principles or our natural allies on this path.”
Netanyahu said after the meeting that he was negotiating on behalf of the right-wing, religious bloc of parties he brought together after the vote. He has been racing to pass a law granting him legal immunity, which does not currently exist in Israeli law, but time is running out.
A total of 11 members of parliament have abstained from endorsing any candidate for prime minister.
They include all eight representatives of Lieberman’s party. The party has the power to decide between Netanyahu and Gantz, but Lieberman has pledged not to join the ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious parties that have endorsed Netanyahu and to never belong to a Cabinet that includes the majority-Arab parties he referred to on Sunday as “enemies.”
The other three belong to Balad, a faction of the majority-Arab Joint List party, which won a total of 13 Knesset seats.
On Sunday, the Joint List committed all 13 of those seats to Gantz — the first time in 27 years that a majority-Arab party has endorsed any candidate for prime minister. It seemed that Gantz had a clear numerical win.
But on Monday morning, Balad withdrew its support, reducing his total from 57 to 54.
The morass threatens Israel’s ability to navigate the region’s diplomatic crises and address domestic challenges.
In a statement released after the Rivlin-Netanyahu-Gantz parley, the president’s spokesman said Rivlin believed a long period of interim governance was “gravely harming Israeli citizens.”
The election last week was a do-over of the April balloting in which Likud and Blue and White won equal numbers of seats. Netanyahu was given a chance to form a government but failed to establish a ruling coalition.
If neither he nor Gantz is able to form a government this time, Israel faces the prospect of a third election.
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.