By Ruth Eglash and Steve Hendrix
September 19, 2019
JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeing his chances of outright victory slipping as the final votes from this week’s election were counted, called Thursday for a power-sharing agreement with his chief political rival — who promptly shot him down.
Benny Gantz, head of the center-left Blue and White party, said he was open to the idea of unity government as long he was at the top of it.
Netanyahu had rejected the idea of a unity government throughout the campaign, but he invited Gantz to “meet me today” soon after Blue and White was shown to have picked up another parliamentary seat, giving it an edge over Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party of 33 seats to 31, with 97 percent of the vote recorded.
“During the elections, I called for the establishment of the right-wing government,” said Netanyahu in a statement. “Unfortunately, election results show that this is not possible. Therefore, there is no choice but to form a broad unity government that is as wide as possible.”
In televised remarks later, Gantz stopped short of agreeing to meet with Netanyahu but expressed openness to the idea of a unity government, with himself as its head.
“We will listen carefully to anyone, but we will not surrender to any dictates,” Gantz said.
Gantz said his party won the election outright, receiving a larger share of the votes than Likud. He also said he would continue to pursue the creation of a centrist, secular and liberal government.
Netanyahu expressed disappointment. “I was surprised and disappointed that at this time Benny Gantz still refuses to respond to my call to meet,” he said in a tweet.
Netanyahu’s turnabout comes as Israel’s fractious political system enters the dealmaking phase, with the two main parties jockeying for the support of other factions until one of them can form a government. A ruling coalition needs at least 61 seats out of a total of 120 in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset.
The shortest path to a majority for either major party is to turn to the other for a coalition and share the prime minister’s job and other top positions on a rotating basis. Israel has had several such unity governments, including a period in the 1980s when rivals Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir shared power.
Netanyahu and Gantz both appeared — and shook hands — at a memorial service for Peres on Thursday, and Netanyahu called for the parties to follow his example of power sharing.
“When there was no clear outcome from the Knesset elections, Shimon chose national unity. He and Yitzhak Shamir agreed to cooperate, to navigate Israel’s path to safety,” Netanyahu said in remarks at the service.
But in today’s Israel — a polarized country with Netanyahu one of its most polarizing figures — a unity government would be a tough sell, even if the two party leaders begin to talk.
[Israeli election leaves both major parties well short of a majority]
Gantz and other centrists have ruled out serving with Likud unless someone other than Netanyahu leads the party. Many of the right-wing and religious parties that support Likud have no love for the centrists and secularists behind Gantz.
At the same time as calling for Gantz to join him in forming that government, Netanyahu worked to shore up support on his right. Even as he sought a meeting with Gantz, his party announced deals with three much smaller parties that had united behind him — two representing Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and a third that is also religious but more nationalistic in nature.
“Yesterday, I met with right-wing party leaders and we agreed that we would go into this coalition negotiations as one bloc,” said Netanyahu in his statement. “Now I call on you, Benny Gantz, to join us in establishing a broad unity government today. The people expect us, both of us, to show responsibility and work for cooperation.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who will select one of the party leaders to have the first crack at forming a new government, welcomed the emerging notes of cooperation and called the rivals to negotiate.
“I hear, loud and clear, the voices calling for a broad and stable national unity government, and I congratulate you, Mr. Prime Minister, on joining that call this morning,” Rivlin said in remarks at the Peres memorial service. “The responsibility for making it happen falls to you elected officials, especially the leaders of the major parties. The citizens of Israel have spoken.”
Gantz’s faction said it would meet Thursday afternoon to discuss Netanyahu’s overture. But analysts cautioned that Netanyahu’s strong alliance with parties on the extreme right wing and the ultra-Orthodox would complicate negotiations. Overhanging all the maneuvering are pending corruption charges against Netanyahu, with a hearing scheduled for Oct. 3.
Gantz campaigned on a platform of not joining a coalition with a leader who was under indictment, and much of his success, analysts say, hinges on his promise not to join Netanyahu if Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decides to take him to trial on three criminal cases centered on bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
“This election put a stop sign to the impression that the edges determine the center, that the extremists determine the center. We see it on both sides of the political spectrum,” he said.
The Washington Post