JERUSALEM – President Reuven Rivlin said Sunday that he would give former military chief of staff Benny Gantz the first chance at forming the next Israeli government, two weeks after a third general election in less than a year produced no clear winner, continuing the country’s political paralysis.
But Gantz, who was unable to form a government after the previous vote in September, still has a mammoth task ahead of him in securing support from unlikely and ideologically opposing parties who might or might not agree to serve in a coalition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been similarly unable to form a government.
Israel’s political stalemate has been exacerbated in recent weeks by the coronavirus pandemic. On Saturday, Israel increased nationwide emergency measures it hoped would slow the spread of the virus, including shuttering schools, universities and all places of entertainment. The number of confirmed cases of covid-19 in Israel currently stands at 213, with no fatalities.
Immediately after the March 2 vote, it appeared that Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party had gained the edge over Gantz’s Blue and White alliance, securing 36 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, to become the largest faction. Four smaller, right-wing, religious parties immediately threw their support behind Netanyahu, giving him a secure bloc of 58 seats.
But Gantz, whose party won 33 seats, appeared to have forged alliances in recent days with two unlikely partners: the Joint List of Arab-majority parties, which gained 15 seats, and the right-wing nationalistic secular party headed by Avigdor Liberman, which won seven. The factions have wildly incompatible ideologies, but they share the goal of ousting Netanyahu and ushering in new leadership in Israel.
Both parties recommended to the president on Sunday that Gantz become the next prime minister. With the support of six members of the left-wing Labor-Meretz faction (one member decided to abstain), he had 61 votes, a narrow majority that left Rivlin with no choice but to hand him the mandate to form a government.
But it was far from certain that Gantz would succeed this time. Though Gantz needs only a simple majority, no Arab-majority party since Israel’s creation in 1948 has been invited or willing to join a government.
For many in Israel’s Jewish majority, the idea of Arab lawmakers being involved in such a high level of governance triggers deep concerns, ideological and psychological, over the fate of Israel as a Jewish state. There are lawmakers in Gantz’s own Blue and White party who have said they would not support such an arrangement.
For Israeli Arabs, remaining outside the government is part of an ideological protest over Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinians and its treatment of Arab citizens. It’s also unlikely that the Joint List would support a government that included Liberman, a hawkish former defense minister who has made clear his disdain for the country’s 1.8 million Arab minority.
In an unusual move Sunday, Rivlin invited both Gantz and Netanyahu to his residence for a joint meeting. Analysts speculated that the president would pressure the two leaders to find a way to join forces, especially as the coronavirus crisis deepens.
“Dealing with emergencies has never been at the expense of Israeli democracy, but has rather strengthened it and made our country more resilient,” the president said ahead of the meeting. “We are committed, more than ever, in light of the urgent need for a government, to hold essential democratic processes, even in a time of crisis.”
Netanyahu asked Gantz last week to join him in an emergency national unity government to confront the pandemic. The two leaders spoke Thursday night.
But over the weekend, Gantz appeared to question Netanyahu’s motives, suggesting he was not serious about sharing power.
Blue and White’s election campaign was focused on not joining a coalition with Netanyahu, who in November became the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted in three criminal probes.
After Saturday’s announcement of new measures to fight the coronavirus, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a close ally of the prime minister, froze the court system, effectively postponing Netanyahu’s trial, which had been set to start Tuesday.
“Netanyahu, let’s not manipulate the public,” Gantz tweeted Sunday. “If you’re interested in unity, why postpone your trial and send the proposal for an ’emergency government’ to the press, rather than via your negotiating team? Opposed to you, I will continue to support every appropriate governmental measure, putting aside political considerations. When you get serious, we can talk.”
In a response, the Likud party said, “While Prime Minister Netanyahu is managing an unprecedented global and national crisis, Gantz has galloped toward a minority government that depends on supporters of terror instead of joining a national emergency government that would save lives.”
Later, after meeting with Rivlin, Gantz and Netanyahu issued a rare joint statement thanking the president and saying their negotiating teams would meet in the coming days. It was not whether they had made any progress in bridging the gaps between them.