Tia Goldenberg, The Associated Press
Published Monday, September 23, 2019 6:29AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, September 23, 2019 7:53AM EDT
JERUSALEM — Israel’s president invited the two main victors from the country’s neck-and-neck election to meet Monday, seeking to break a deadlock that has complicated his task of trying to choose the country’s next prime minister.
While formally maintaining only a ceremonial role, President Reuven Rivlin must choose the candidate he believes is best positioned to form a majority coalition in parliament. But last week’s do-over election was inconclusive, with neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party nor the centrist Blue and White led by former army chief Benny Gantz having a clear path to forming a government.
“There is one thing that the people are largely united over and that is the desire that there won’t be third elections,” Rivlin said.
The likeliest outcome is a unity government between the two rivals. Both sides have said they support the idea, but they disagree over who will head it, and Gantz has vowed not to sit with Netanyahu so long as he faces a likely indictment over a number of corruption scandals.
Rivlin on Monday wrapped up his second and final day of consultations with each party in parliament. Based on their recommendations, he must now select the candidate he deems has the best chance of forming a stable coalition. He is set to make his decision by Wednesday.
In most elections, one of the major parties, along with smaller allies, controls a parliamentary majority. But that did not happen this time. Maverick politician Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu party controls eight seats, has refused to endorse either side and is pushing for a unity deal.
Rivlin’s office announced that he would summon both Netanyahu and Gantz for a meeting later Monday.
Rivlin will likely pick the candidate with the most recommendations, who will then have 28 days to try to cobble together a government. If the first candidate chosen fails within that time, the second is given the opportunity. If he too doesn’t manage, the country could head to an unprecedented third election in less than a year.
In Rivlin’s first round of talks on Sunday, the Joint Arab List threw its support behind Gantz, the first time the Arab parties had recommended a candidate since 1992. Arab leaders said the decision was aimed at toppling Netanyahu, whose anti-Arab rhetoric has infuriated and offended Arabs in Israel during his decade in power. The backing promised to give Gantz slightly more support.
But on Monday, three Arab lawmakers said they were withdrawing their recommendations for Gantz, trimming his support to below Netanyahu’s.
So far, a total of 55 lawmakers have recommended Netanyahu for prime minister, while 54 have endorsed Gantz. The prime minister needs at least 61 seats to have a parliamentary majority.
Last week’s repeat election produced no clear majority, with Blue and White receiving 33 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament and Netanyahu’s Likud garnering 31 seats. Both sides therefore must seek the support of other parties.
The vote last week was a never-before held second election, which was triggered after Netanyahu was unable to forge a coalition following April elections and then dissolved parliament.
Netanyahu had hoped to secure a narrow majority of hard-line and religious parties that would grant him immunity from prosecution on charges that could include bribery, breach of trust and fraud. But now that possibility appears to be off the table.
Israeli law does not require a sitting premier to resign if indicted. But if he is charged, as is widely expected, he will come under heavy pressure to step down.
Netanyahu faces a hearing next month on the charges and indictments could follow soon thereafter.