JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began the task of forming a new coalition government Thursday after inconclusive elections Sept. 17. The move comes even though Netanyahu's Likud party obtained one seat less than challenger Benny Gantz's Blue and White party in the election. Likud won 32 seats to Blue and White's 33.
President Reuven Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first chance to form the government Wednesday, deeming Netanyahu the one with the best odds of success. Rivlin made the decision after talks on a unity government between the two parties foundered. Such an arrangement would involve some kind of power-sharing or rotation of prime minister.
"The people do not want another election," Rivlin said several times during a speech. The president said Netanyahu had more Knesset members nominating him to be prime minister than Gantz. Fifty-five members of the Knesset backed Netanyahu, compared to 54 for Gantz. A 61-seat parliamentary majority is required to form a coalition government.
The most recent election was already the second this year, after Netanyahu fell one short of the 61-seat majority coalition following a vote in April.
Government ministers from Netanyahu's Likud party say they are open to a unity deal with Gantz's Blue and White.
"We are ready and willing to negotiate on the basis of the framework presented by the president. The direction that he proposed is correct," said Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, a Likud negotiator in the coalition talks, in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster. "This alternative is not what we had hoped for, but it's much better than third elections."
Gantz said that Netanyahu was the one who prompted the new elections and that Netanyahu is the one who perhaps wants a third election this year.
"I call upon Netanyahu and Likud — let us begin immediate negotiations, with talks on fundamental principles and issues without preconditions, without spin and without blocs," Gantz said at a party meeting, referring to Netanyahu's insistence on negotiating as the leader of a bloc of nationalist and religious parties. "For the sake of the people of Israel, let us build a unity government."
Gantz, however, added a caveat that has stymied negotiations.
"We are looking for public integrity. We are looking to fight corruption," he said. "Because of this, we cannot sit under a prime minister who is facing indictments. I call for dialogue and issues with Likud, the second-largest party."
Netanyahu faces three indictments for fraud and breach of trust. He has continued to maintain his innocence. The last step before the attorney general decides on an indictment is a hearing, which is expected next week.
Netanyahu on Thursday called for his hearing to be broadcast live, saying,"The time has come for the public to hear everything, including my side."
There has been widespread speculation that if Netanyahu were able to put together a coalition, and if he won a fifth term as prime minister, he would legislate immunity for himself. During the negotiations for a unity government, Rivlin reportedly proposed some kind of deal in which Netanyahu would step aside if indicted.
The Israeli media have begun to speculate about possible dates for a third election this year if Netanyahu cannot form a coalition.
The kingmaker is the mostly Russian immigrant and staunchly secular Yisrael Beytenu party of Avigdor Lieberman, a former aide to Netanyahu. Yisrael Beytenu has a list of demands that include the institution of civil marriage in Israel, public transportation on Shabbat, and a wide-ranging army draft for the ultra-Orthodox who currently have an exemption from service.
Meeting the demands would make it impossible for Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox allies to stay in the coalition.
Netanyahu has 28 days to try to form the next government, and could then ask for a 14-day extension. Israeli media say he is considering returning the mandate to Rivlin just after the Jewish New Year, which falls next week. Rivlin could then ask Gantz to try, although Gantz is unlikely to be any more successful than Netanyahu.
Rivlin has the power to ask any Knesset member to try to form a new government or to announce a third round of elections.