Israel Election Results: President Rivlin Tasks Netanyahu With Forming Government as Unity Talks With Gantz Fail

The president is unlikely to task Gantz with the role if Netanyahu fails, which could set the stage for a third election cycle within a year

Gantz, Rivlin and Netanyahu at the president's residence in Jerusalem, September 25, 2019
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin announced on Wednesday he will task Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a government coalition as talks between the latter's Likud and Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan to form a unity government reached a stalemate.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 42Haaretz

During his speech, Rivlin reiterated several times that "the people do not want another election."

He added that when he decided to grant Netanyahu with the mandate, he took into consideration that "the Likud party - as did Kahol Lavan - promised the public to return the mandate to the president should they fail to form a government."

Rivlin also mentioned an idea, rejected by one or both of the candidates, that entailed forming a government in which no bloc had an advantage over the other, and with the law giving greater authority to an acting prime minister should the existing one be unable to perform his role. This would mean that in theory, if Netanyahu was unable to act as prime minister because he was on trial, he could retain the title of prime minister while his authority would pass to Gantz as acting prime minister.

Accepting Rivlin’s mandate, Netanyahu said he was doing so “knowing that I don’t have a better chance of forming a government, but let’s say that my inability is a little smaller than Gantz’s because both of us won’t be able to form a government except with each other.”

Netanyahu said a unity government was the order of the day, emphasizing the threat posed by "the gumption and chutzpah of Iran."

He also spoke of the Trump administration's so'called "deal of the century," saying Israel will need a strong unified government to set its eastern border in the face of American demands. "In the 71 years of Israel's existence, we have not had such an opportunity and it's doubtful that we will have one in the coming years," Netanyahu said, adding that he believed details of the plan would be revealed "only if we stand as a single, broad front."

The prime minister said he would return the mandate to the president if he failed to form a coalition, and that "with the help of God and with the help of the citizens of Israel, and with your, the president's, help, we will form a broad, national unity government later on. I hope we succeed now."

In his statement, Benny Gantz stressed that his party "will not sit in a government which has a prime minister against whom stands a severe indictment."

The Likud party won less Knesset seats than Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan, while Netanyahu received more recommendations from elected lawmakers than his rival.

Rivlin said on Tuesday that he would delay his decision on the matter until next Wednesday to give Likud and Kahol Lavan a chance to reach an agreement.

>> Read more: No Israeli president has ever faced the challenge now confronting Rivlin | Analysis ■ How Avigdor Lieberman has made himself King Bibi's regicide ■ With Israel's election results, Netanyahu is reminded that Trump hates losers | Analysis

However, after a meeting between both Netanyahu and Gantz as well as their respective negotiation teams, Rivlin apparently decided that at this stage, the sides are not interested in forming a unity government. 

If Netanyahu fails to form a coalition, political sources believe, Rivlin may not tap Gantz to try and form one, but rather would allow 61 lawmakers to present another candidate.

A Kahol Lavan official said his party "treats the presidency with utmost respect and will accept any decision Rivlin makes. We come to the negotiating table with our principles, but also with an open mind and willful spirit."

According to final election results, announced overnight Tuesday by Israel's Central Election Committee, Likud has won 32 Knesset seats, still one behind Kahol Lavan which maintains 33 out of 120 seats. 

However, the results don't change the number of recommendations each candidate for prime minister received, with Netanyahu at 55 and Gantz at 54.

Political sources involved in the negotiations between the two parties assess that neither is serious about creating a unity government.

Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman criticized Netanyahu on Wednesday, dubbing him "the world's most flexible man" and urging him to be more flexible in coalition talks.

"Since the April 9 election we've seen Netanyahu's unlimited flexibility and stunts, from his 'Arabs are voting in droves' cries to the frantic negotiations with the Arab Joint List," he wrote on Facebook. Lieberman called on Netanyahu to "stop the blame game over who [would] be responsible for a third election – and perhaps we will hear the news - even before Rosh Hashanah – of a government, at least in principle." 

If Rivlin concludes that no candidate can form a government, he may choose to shorten the process, sources believe. If Netanyahu fails on his first try, Rivlin won't grant Netanyahu an extra two weeks to try to form a coalition. Rivlin then may announce that he does not believe Gantz can form a coalition either. 

From this point, the Knesset will have three weeks to consolidate support of 61 lawmaker behind a different candidate. If one is found, he could be granted another two-week extension by the president. If the nominated candidate also proves unable to build a coalition, the Knesset will dissolve and third election will be held.

Kahol Lavan has been hoping that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit would announce whether charges against Netanyahu would be pressed as pre-indictment hearings are set to begin October 2. This would soften the resistance of the ultra-Orthodox parties and Yamina to joining them in forming a government. However, it seems possible that Mendelblit will not make any announcements regarding Netanyahu's pending hearings until after the process.