The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Netanyahu offers talks over unity government. His chief rival brushes aside the invitation. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprise unity government offer to rival Benny Gantz after failing to win a majority. The answer was "no." (Video: Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeing his chances of an outright election victory slip away as final votes were counted, asked his chief rival on Thursday to come negotiate a possible power-sharing agreement.

But Benny Gantz, head of the center-left Blue and White party, ignored the invitation for coalition talks. Buoyed by results that showed his party extending its lead in Tuesday’s election, Gantz said he was open to forming a unity government as long he was at the top of it.

“We will listen carefully to anyone, but we will not surrender to any dictates,” said Gantz, a former army chief of staff, in his first public address since election night. He said he remained committed to pursuing “a broad and liberal coalition headed by myself.”

Jilted, Netanyahu expressed dismay. “I was surprised and disappointed that at this time Benny Gantz still refuses to respond to my call to meet,” he said in a tweet.

It wasn’t the only time Netanyahu extended a hand to Gantz on Thursday and failed to get a warm response. When the two encountered each other at a memorial service for the late prime minister Shimon Peres, Netanyahu leaned in for a handshake, leaving Gantz looking bemused and impatient.

In his public remarks, Gantz has assumed the mantle of confident victor, emphasizing that his party had won the election.

Israeli election leaves both major parties well short of a majority

With 97 percent of the vote counted, Blue and White had secured 33 seats in the parliament, or Knesset, and Netanyahu’s Likud had 31. Both parties remain far short of the 61 seats required for a governing coalition. But Netanyahu, a proven political escape artist, is on the back foot, and Gantz — at least for now — is the one with momentum.

“I think what is happening now is that he can be seen as a very legitimate candidate for prime minister,” Amotz Asa-El, a longtime political analyst and fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, said of Gantz.

In the faceoff between Gantz and Netanyahu, it’s tempting to ask who will blink first. Gantz pledged during the campaign that he would not enter a coalition government with Likud if it were still headed by Netanyahu. Netanyahu has vowed to fight on, pressing Likud members to remain loyal to him.

Whether Netanyahu’s unity offer on Thursday was a gambit, a tactic or a white flag, many observers detected a whiff of deflation from the country’s longest-serving prime minister

“I think that is part of his illustrious career’s death pangs,” Asa-El said. “It may have been sincere, but it was very late in the day.”

It was shortly after an updated vote count gave Blue and White an additional Knesset seat that Netanyahu made his surprise pitch for a power-sharing agreement. 

“During the elections, I called for the establishment of the right-wing government,” said Netanyahu in a statement. “Unfortunately, election results show that this is not possible. Therefore, there is no choice but to form a broad unity government that is as wide as possible.”

Netanyahu’s turnabout came as Israel’s fractious political system enters the dealmaking phase, with the two main parties jockeying for the support of other factions in pursuit of a majority coalition.

The shortest path to a majority for either major party is to turn to the other for a coalition and share the prime minister’s job and other top positions on a rotating basis. Israel has had several such unity governments, including in the 1980s when rivals Peres and Yitzhak Shamir shared power. 

At the memorial service for Peres, Netanyahu called for the parties to follow that example of power-sharing. 

“When there was no clear outcome from the Knesset elections, Shimon chose national unity. He and Yitzhak Shamir agreed to cooperate, to navigate Israel’s path to safety,” Netanyahu said in remarks at the service.

But in today’s Israel — a polarized country, with Netanyahu one of its most polarizing figures — a unity government would be a tough sell, even if the two party leaders begin to talk. 

Gantz is not alone in his camp in insisting that Netanyahu step aside as Likud party leader as a precondition of power-sharing. Many of the right-wing and religious parties that support Likud, for their part, have no love for the centrists and secularists behind Gantz.

Even as he called for Gantz to join him in forming that government, Netanyahu worked to lock up support on his right. Likud announced commitments of ­support from three small parties that had united behind him — two representing Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and a third that is also religious but more nationalist in nature.

“Yesterday, I met with right-wing party leaders and we agreed that we would go into this coalition negotiation as one bloc,” said Netanyahu in his statement. “Now I call on you, Benny Gantz, to join us in establishing a broad unity government today. The people expect us, both of us, to show responsibility and work for cooperation.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who will select one of the party leaders to have the first crack at forming a new government, welcomed the emerging notes of cooperation and called the rivals to negotiate. 

“I hear, loud and clear, the voices calling for a broad and stable national unity government, and I congratulate you, Mr. Prime Minister, on joining that call this morning,” Rivlin said in remarks at the Peres memorial service. “The responsibility for making it happen falls to you elected officials, especially the leaders of the major parties. The citizens of Israel have spoken.” 

On Sunday, representatives of each of the nine parties that won Knesset seats are scheduled to visit the president’s official residence in Jerusalem to formally recommend a candidate for prime minister. Rivlin will then ask one of those nominees to try to assemble a governing coalition. It is unclear when he will announce his choice.

Traditionally, if the chosen leader fails to assemble a government after 28 days (or 42, if an extension is granted), the candidate will return the mandate to the president and the president will offer the chance to someone else.

But in May, after Netanyahu was stymied in assembling a coalition, he maneuvered to have parliament call Israel’s second election in five months. Avigdor Liberman, the head of a secular nationalist party who blocked Netanyahu in the spring, looks likely to recommend that Gantz be the first to try. 

Gantz’s party said it would meet to discuss Netanyahu’s overture. But analysts cautioned that Netanyahu’s strong alliance with ultra-Orthodox parties and factions on the extreme right wing would complicate negotiations.

Hanging over the negotiations are pending corruption charges against Netanyahu, with a hearing scheduled for early October. If Gantz does get a chance to form a government next week, he may have every reason to take his time on the theory that Netanyahu will be even weaker once he is enmeshed in a formal legal battle.

Gantz “will let the political process be overshadowed by the legal process that is about to begin,” said Asa-El. “I think his calculation is then Netanyahu’s own college in the Likud will show him the door.”

Gantz campaigned on a platform of not joining a coalition with a leader who was under indictment. And much of Gantz’s success, analysts say, hinges on his promise not to sit in government with Netanyahu if Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decides to put him on trial in three pending criminal cases involving allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Dan Avnon, chairman of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the election results showed that the majority of Israelis want a “stable, normal and functioning democracy.”

“This election put a stop sign to the impression that the edges determine the center, that the extremists determine the center,” he said.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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