Israeli election rivals meet as deadlock looms
President Reuven Rivlin brought them together for talks.
Israel’s president has summoned the leaders of the country’s two largest political parties to his official residence, hoping to break a political deadlock that threatens to push the nation into months of limbo and potentially force a third election in less than a year.
Neither prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, commented as President Reuven Rivlin brought them together for a photo at the beginning of the meeting.
The two men looked tense and uncomfortable as Mr Rivlin forced a smile.
In a joint statement after the meeting, the sides said negotiators would continue talks on Tuesday and that Mr Rivlin had invited the two leaders back to meet him on Wednesday evening.
The president is responsible for choosing a candidate for prime minister after national elections. That task is usually a formality, given to the leader who has the best chance of forming a stable majority coalition in the 120-seat parliament.
But last week’s election ended in deadlock, with neither Mr Netanyahu, who has ruled the country for the past decade, nor Mr Gantz able to put together a coalition with smaller allied political parties.
That has greatly complicated Mr Rivlin’s task, and a unity deal between the large parties is seen as perhaps the only way out of the impasse.
“People expect you to find a solution and to prevent further elections, even if it comes at a personal and even ideological cost. This is not the time to exclude people,” Mr Rivlin’s office said he told the two leaders.
He has spent the past two days meeting with leaders of all of the parties elected to parliament.
Mr Gantz’s centrist Blue and White came first with 33 seats, trailed by Mr Netanyahu’s Likud with 31.
With smaller allied parties, a total of 55 legislators have thrown their support behind Mr Netanyahu, and 54 in favour of Mr Gantz, leaving both men short of the required 61-seat majority.
Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, has emerged as the key power broker. Mr Lieberman, who controls eight seats, has refused to endorse either candidate, and has demanded they join him in a broad, secular unity government.
Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz have both expressed support for a unity deal between their parties, but there are deep, seemingly unbridgeable differences between them.
Mr Gantz has said he will not partner with Likud as long as Mr Netanyahu is at the helm, citing the prime minister’s legal problems. Israel’s attorney general has recommended charging Mr Netanyahu with a series of corruption-related charges and is expected to make a final decision following a hearing with the prime minister early next month.
The PM believes he should remain at the helm of a unity government and has signed a deal with his smaller allies, including ultra-Orthodox parties, to negotiate as a bloc.
Mr Lieberman, a former ally of Mr Netanyahu, refuses to sit in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties. In April, the Soviet-born politician refused to join Mr Netanyahu’s coalition following elections, triggering the September 17 repeat vote.
He objected to what he said was excessive influence by the religious parties, leaving Mr Netanyahu without a majority and forcing him to call the new election.
Israeli media said no breakthroughs were expected at Monday’s meeting.