Jerusalem: Negotiators for Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main opponent Benny Gantz met Tuesday to discuss possibilities for a unity government that both men say they should lead after last week’s deadlocked election.
The chief negotiators for Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White gathered to follow up on a meeting between their two leaders and Israel’s president late on Monday.
That encounter was their first formal meeting since the September 17 election ended with Gantz winning the most seats, but with neither having a clear path to a majority coalition.
The two men are due to meet again with President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday.
The negotiators’ meeting concluded after two hours, with a joint statement saying it was “topical and carried out in good spirits”.
The Likud negotiator, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, noted he was representing “all 55 members of the right-wing bloc”.
Netanyahu and the heads of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties signed a document on Thursday committing to conduct joint negotiations and enter a government together.
The two negotiators said they would update their bosses on the meeting “and then decide on further talks and additional steps”.
Rivlin, who must choose who will form the next government, has leaned heavily on the two parties to work out a unity coalition between them, and on Monday night urged them to find a path to do so.
In remarks to heads of North American Jewish federations on Tuesday, Rivlin said: “We must ask our leaders to form a government as quickly as possible.”
Both Gantz and Netanyahu say they want a unity government but are at odds over who will lead it, not to mention further details on the make-up of such a coalition.
A rotation arrangement has been floated, but the question of who would be premier first remains a major stumbling block.
The timing is especially important for Netanyahu, who is facing possible corruption charges in the weeks ahead, pending a hearing set for early October.
A prime minister does not have to step down if indicted — only if convicted with all appeals exhausted — while other ministers can be forced to do so when charged.
Gantz, who as head of the party which won most seats says he should be in the lead, reiterated on Tuesday his movement’s support of a “broad and liberal unity government”.
While Blue and White was negotiating with “an open mind and heart”, his party would not “relinquish our principles or our partners”, he said in a statement.
“There is still a long road ahead, but in the end I hope it will lead to the establishment of a good government,” Gantz said.
- ‘What I promised’ –
Netanyahu has stressed that he has more support from smaller parties in parliament and pledged not to abandon them in a coalition deal.
“I am committed to what I promised you,” he said after Monday night’s meeting, addressing right-wing and religious parties allied to his Likud.
The election saw Blue and White win 33 seats compared to Likud’s 31 out of parliament’s 120.
It was the second election since April after polls that month also finished inconclusively.
The standoff has raised the possibility of yet another election — a prospect Rivlin has vowed to do all he can to prevent.
“The public does not want another election. They came out and voted, and now it is your turn,” he told Netanyahu and Gantz on Monday night.
“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.”
Gantz, an ex-military chief who mounted his challenge to the prime minister with no prior political experience, will face a formidable negotiating foe in Netanyahu.
He is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, having held the post for a total of more than 13 years, and has repeatedly outmanoeuvred rivals with his sharp political skills.
Rivlin is expected to designate a candidate to try to form a government sometime after he receives final official election results on Wednesday.
The timing of his announcement may depend on the progress of negotiations between the Likud and Blue and White.
The person chosen would then have 28 days to form a government, with a possible two-week extension.
If all attempts fail, Rivlin can then assign the task to someone else.