1. Monday night’s interaction initiated by President Reuven Rivlin marked the first working meeting between Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz since Gantz stepped down as chief of staff in 2015, at the end of a term that Netanyahu, then, as now, prime minister, had extended to a fourth year, in appreciation of his skillful command.
In the campaigns ahead of last week’s and April’s elections, by contrast, Netanyahu condemned Gantz as a weak man of the left, who cannot be trusted to keep Israel safe. Gantz, for his part, has declared that Netanyahu has become a despotic liability to the country, and should leave the stage to deal with the corruption allegations against him.
2. During Sunday’s and Monday’s consultations with the representatives of the nine parties that won Knesset seats on September 17, Rivlin returned time and again to the imperative to establish a stable government and avoid a third round of elections.
Sources at the President’s Residence quoted on Israel’s Channel 13 news on Monday night said Rivlin believes he has “ideas” that could help encourage Netanyahu and Gantz to forge a unity coalition, including a formula by which they could rotate the premiership. Whatever he pitched, it was evidently sufficient to persuade the two candidates to keep talking: he invited them to come back on Wednesday, with their negotiating teams getting together on Tuesday.
3. Anonymous sources close to Rivlin told Channel 13 that the president has not made up his mind who to charge first with the task of building a coalition. “He does not have a name in his head,” the TV station quoted an unnamed source as saying.
The president has until Wednesday, October 2 to make a choice — which happens to be the same day as Netanyahu’s hearing pending indictment. Rivlin could choose one of the two to form a government as early as this Wednesday or Thursday, the TV report said, but would be perfectly prepared to wait another week, enabling them to reflect on his unity appeal during the two-day Rosh Hashanah holiday, which begins Sunday.
4. If Netanyahu and Gantz cannot agree between themselves on a process of coalition building, Rivlin will indeed face a complex choice. Neither would-be prime minister has majority support or a clear path to a coalition. Fifty-five MKs (from Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yemina) have recommended Netanyahu as prime minister, compared to 54 for Gantz (from Blue and White, Labor-Gesher, the Democratic Camp, and 10 of the 13 Arab MKs from the Joint List). By that measure, Rivlin could opt to give Netanyahu the first shot at mustering a majority. But Blue and White party has 33 seats, compared to 31 for Likud. So that favors Gantz.
5. While both Netanyahu and Gantz have professed to seeking a unity arrangement, Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox and right-wing allies have also agreed to negotiate as a single bloc, prompting Blue and White to dismiss his unity overtures as disingenuous spin. Gantz, for his part, while seeking to partner with Likud, has said he will do so only when it has ditched Netanyahu.
6. Adding to the scale of the president’s task is the fact that he has a famously difficult relationship with Netanyahu. Rivlin is a former Likud MK and Knesset speaker whom Netanyahu sought to prevent becoming president, and who has repeatedly, if implicitly, criticized Netanyahu for his divisive political tactics. The “bad blood” between the two runs so thick, one political analyst noted in a TV report Monday night, that Netanyahu will be inclined “to think of any proposal from Rivlin as aimed to bring about the end of his career.”
It is far more likely that for all of Rivlin’s efforts, each will still insist on trying to build a government without the other, though they themselves may not yet have decided whether it is smarter to take the first shot at such an effort, or hold back and wait for their rival to, hopefully, fail.
Thus Rivlin, forced to make his Solomonic decision, may be choosing between two candidates who may not have figured out if they even want to be chosen.