The political rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sept. 19 swiftly rejected Netanyahu’s offer to form a coalition government, after both leaders failed two days earlier to secure enough support after an unprecedented second election.
Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White political alliance formed earlier this year in a bid to defeat Netanyahu, won 33 seats in Israel’s parliament, with 95 percent of the votes counted on Sept. 19. Netanyahu’s Likud party won 31 seats, but neither side gained enough support from smaller parties to form a 61-seat ruling bloc in the 120-seat parliament.
The Likud-led religious coalition was on track to form a 55-seat religious bloc, while the Blue-and-White-led coalition was poised to claim 56 seats.
Netanyahu extended the offer to Gantz shortly after it became clear the election had deadlocked for a second time, saying “there is no reason to go to third elections.
“Throughout the campaign, I called for a right-wing government, but unfortunately, the election results show that’s not possible,” Netanyahu said in a video statement on Sept. 19. “Therefore, there is no choice but to form a broad unity government.”
The prime minister repeated the offer later in the day when he met with Gantz at a memorial for former Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Short of rejecting the offer, Gantz said he himself would lead a “liberal” ruling coalition, political shorthand for a secular party that excludes Likud’s Orthodox allies. Moshe Yaalon, another Blue and White leader, delivered the formal rebuke to the offer.
“We will not enter a coalition led by Netanyahu,” Yaalon said, appearing to suggest that an alliance with Likud would be possible if it ousted its chief.
“The time has come for you to tell Netanyahu, ‘Thank you for all you’ve done,'” Yaalon said.
Netanyahu said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the rejection and repeated his plea to Gantz to join him.
“It’s what the public expects of us,” Netanyahu said.
The election stalemate has turned Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beitenu party into a political kingmaker. While Lieberman has enough support to help either Likud or Blue and White clear the 61-seat threshold for a ruling bloc, he’s refused to form a coalition with Likud’s religious allies. Lieberman prefers a broad secular coalition that includes Likud and Blue and White.
Blue and White likewise prefers a unity government but has pledged to not sit in a government together with Netanyahu, because the prime minister is facing allegations of corruption. Netanyahu could be charged with a list of corruption crimes in the coming months, but Likud is unlikely to oust him. While Israeli law doesn’t require an indicted prime minister to resign, a trial of a sitting prime minister would be a huge national distraction and fuel calls for the leader to step aside.
Gantz and Netanyahu ran campaigns with only narrow differences on major issues. As a result, Netanyahu’s ouster is unlikely to produce substantial shifts on Israel’s relationship with the United States, Jerusalem’s stance on the regional struggle with Iran, or the long-running impasse with the Palestinians.
Once the vote count is finalized, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin will select a prime minister after consulting with all the parties. The designated prime minister will then have six weeks to form a coalition government. If the designate fails, Rivlin can designate a second prime minister to attempt to form a coalition government in 28 days. If both ministers fail, Rivlin could order a third election.
Speaking at the Peres memorial, Rivlin promised he would do everything in his power to prevent a third election.
The deadlock follows the second Israeli elections this year, which were called because Netanyahu failed to cobble together a coalition following a vote in April. Instead of allowing another candidate a chance to form a government, Netanyahu dissolved Parliament and ordered this week’s unprecedented do-over election.
Netanyahu this summer surpassed Israel’s founding prime minister to become the country’s longest-serving leader.
During the campaign, Netanyahu cast himself as a seasoned statesman who is the only candidate able to steer Israel through a sea of challenges. Gantz, a former army chief, tried to paint Netanyahu as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and honest alternative.
With Israeli politics in flux, Netanyahu canceled his annual speech at the U.N. General Assembly next week, a spokesman said on Sept. 18, a visit that might have provided an opportunity to meet with Trump. Netanyahu highlighted his close ties with Trump in his election campaign.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.