President Reuven Rivlin informed Benny Gantz on Thursday that he was transferring the task of forming a governing coalition to the Knesset, after the Kahol Lavan leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to reach an agreement for a unity government.
This kicks off a 21-day period in which any lawmaker who can secure 61 signatories from the parliament can form a coalition. Should no one succeed, the Knesset will dissolve and another election will take place in 90 days, according to Israeli law.
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"None of the candidates have the support of a Knesset majority in a way that allows them to gain the confidence of the Knesset and form a government, not even a unity government," President Reuven Rivlin wrote in a letter addressed to Gantz.
"I do not see the possibility of a government being formed, and I pass the process of assembling the government to the Knesset. I hope that the Knesset members will be able to come up with a majority, so that that they can form a government as quickly as possible and avoid a fourth election campaign," said the letter.
Netanyahu has since called Gantz and invited to a meeting later on Thursday. The two agreed that their parties' negotiation teams would meet prior to their sit-down.
Gantz and Netanyahu met on Wednesday in a last-moment bid to form a national unity government that could tackle the coronavirus crisis, but at midnight when Kahol Lavan leader's mandate to form a coalition expired no agreement had been announced.
Their meeting at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem after the end of Passover, their third since Monday, came as sources close to President Reuven Rivlin say he would not extend Gantz's mandate once more if the talks end at an impasse, after already agreeing to a 48-hour extension on Monday.
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The two leaders met for several hours on Monday night and again on Tuesday morning.
This comes after talks had reached an impasse over the matter of appointing judges, with Netanyahu's Likud pushing to change the makeup of the appointing committee.
Another issue the parties disagree on is a bill that would ensure Gantz is indeed sworn in as prime minister after Netanyahu following a rotation agreement. Netanyahu fears the proposed bill benefits Kahol Lavan, and doesn't block the possibility of his disqualification to serve on by the High Court of Justice, as his trial in three corruption cases is still pending.
Israel has been operating under the auspices of a caretaker government for over a year, as three national election campaigns produced inconclusive results.
Earlier this week, during a statement in which he announced an innercity curfew for the second holiday of Passover, Netanyahu said that efforts persist to form a unity government.
"Even if this doesn't happen by midnight, we will do everything within our power to promote this," he said.
Speaking after Netanyahu, Gantz said the two had reached agreements that he hoped the prime minister will fulfill. "This is our moment of truth, it's either an emergency national unity government or a redundant fourth election."
According to a Channel 12 News poll, were an election to take place on Monday, Netanyahu’s Likud would earn 40 seats – four seats more than the party gained in the March 2 election. Kahol Lavan would see a significant drop with 19 seats in the poll, far short of the 33 seats they gained in March.
The Arab-majority Joint List would gain 15 seats, while Meretz, which last week split from Labor, would gain 5 seats. Meanwhile, Labor, the party’s whose progenitor formed the state of Israel, would not pass the electoral threshold. The ultra-Orthodox Shas earned 9 seats, Yamina 8, while United Torah Judaism and Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu would earn 7 seats. Gesher and the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit also did not make it into the Knesset in the poll.
Last week, Gantz said unity government negotiations were halted because of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demands to interfere with the work of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which is the body that appoints judges to Israeli courts.
According to Kahol Lavan, Likud demanded to add a provision to the unity agreement that the committee will operate in coordination with a Likud minister representing the party in the panel.
Before that, an agreement between the two parties seemed almost finalized. The proposed coalition agreement would be have been enshrined in law through a detailed amendment to the Basic Law on the Government, legally reducing the government terms to three years, and automatically transferring the prime ministership to Gantz in eighteen months.
Crucially, according to the proposed law, if early elections are called or Netanyahu has to leave his post, Gantz would replace him.
Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman this morning called on Gantz in a Facebook post to advance laws that would prevent Netanyahu from serving as Prime Minister while he is a criminal defendant. He proposed an amendment to the law that would prevent a prime minister or minister from serving in the event that an indictment is filed against them. Such an amendment would block Netanyahu’s ability to serve as a Prime Minister, since he was formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in November of last year and is awaiting trial.
Further, he demanded that Gantz advance laws limiting the prime minister's tenure to two consecutive terms and giving Israel sovereignty of the Jordan Valley.