Arab parties traditionally refrain from recommending a candidate during consultations as an ideological protest of Israel’s ongoing military occupation of the Palestinians. The last time an Arab party backed a candidate during consultations was in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister. Rabin later signed the historic Oslo accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“We will recommend Benny Gantz as prime minister,” Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said during a meeting with Rivlin on Sunday. “We want to return to be legitimate political actors and bring an end to the Netanyahu government.”
Rivlin held consultations with representatives of four of the nine political blocs that make up Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. He is scheduled to meet with the rest of the factions Monday and then decide whether Netanyahu or Gantz will get the first chance to form the next government.
Also breaking with precedent was Avigdor Liberman, the hawkish former defense minister. He has been loyal in the past to Netanyahu but said he could not support the long-serving leader this time because Netanyahu has aligned himself closely with religious and right-wing parties.
Liberman said he wouldn’t recommend Gantz, either, after he was supported by the Joint List.
Liberman said the only way forward was to form a unity government that included both Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White party. He said it did not matter which of the two men became prime minister first.
Blue and White won about 40,000 more votes than Likud in the election last week, but neither party gained enough seats to form a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. And neither, it appears, will be able to muster enough support from their ideological blocs to carve a stable coalition. With 33 and 31 seats, Blue and White and Likud could form a strong, centrist government.
Rivlin said after the election that the parity between the two parties indicated “loud and clear” that the majority of Israel’s citizens wanted to see a “broad and stable national unity government.”
He said the stalemate, which began after a first round of elections in April left Netanyahu unable to secure a governing coalition, had gone on for too long. He called on all candidates to quickly “work towards forming a government that can serve the State of Israel and the people of Israel again.”
“President Rivlin, who normally has a ceremonial role, much like the queen of England, has now been thrust into a role of great importance,” said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for the Jerusalem Post.
“He is really being looked to as the unifier that Israel so desperately needs,” Hoffman said.
It was unclear how Rivlin would get the sides to cooperate, after their campaigns promised not to be part of a government that included certain candidates or certain parties. It wasn’t even clear how he would decide who would get the first chance to form a government. Tradition dictates that the opportunity be offered to the person most likely to succeed, but with the task appearing near impossible for either leader, the president might need to consider other criteria.
“This situation has never happened before, and therefore it’s hard to know what the options are,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, professor emeritus in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Because Israel is in such an “unusual situation,” he said, “it is possible that the president will choose something that is equally unusual.”
Neither party appeared willing to budge Sunday. Gantz last week rejected an appeal by Netanyahu to meet and discuss a unity government, making clear that, as leader of the largest party, he intended to become Israel’s next prime minister.
He also reiterated a commitment to a unity government, as long as it did not include Netanyahu, who faces possible criminal indictment in three cases of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
Immediately after the election, Netanyahu signed a pact with two ultra-Orthodox parties and a smaller religious nationalist party, boosting his support in the Knesset to 55 seats. Likud insists that, as the head of the largest bloc, it should lead the charge. At this stage, it has refused to remove Netanyahu as party leader.