The frontrunner in the Israeli elections, Benny Gantz, has rejected a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to consider joining a coalition that would return the four-time premier to office.
The rebuff to Mr Netanyahu on Thursday from the leader of the seven-month-old Blue and White party has deepened a political crisis that threatens to force Israel into a third election this year.
Mr Gantz, a former head of Israel’s military, said he would not consider a so-called unity government unless Mr Netanyahu stepped aside.
It was the first salvo in the months-long process of public posturing and back-room negotiations that follows each Israeli election, as parties cobble together unwieldy coalitions in a fractured electoral landscape.
Earlier on Thursday Mr Netanyahu said the election result made clear that Israel had no choice but to accept a unity government, publicly acknowledging for the first time that he would be unable to form the rightwing coalition he pledged to his voter base.
With 97 per cent of the vote from Tuesday’s elections counted, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud trailed the centre-right Blue and White Party by two seats in the 120-member Knesset, the second time this year Israeli voters have delivered an unclear mandate.
“I was surprised and disappointed by the fact that, as of now, Benny Gantz still refuses my call to meet,” Mr Netanyahu wrote on Twitter. “Gantz, my offer that the two of us meet stands. It’s what the public expects of us.”
Mr Netanyahu had spent the entire election campaign warning that only a rightwing government could defend Israel, but with only 55 seats won collectively by the traditional rightwing bloc, he is now attempting to ensure he secures a record fifth premiership, even if in alliance with a party he has derided as weak and unpatriotic.
He dismissed the possibility of a third election, a sentiment echoed by his rightwing, pro-settlements allies, but did not address the elephant in the room — Mr Gantz has said repeatedly he prefers a unity government, but only if Mr Netanyahu steps down.
Despite trailing Blue and White, Mr Netanyahu has held on to the appearance of being in charge of coalition negotiations, first by getting a signed pledge from all the rightwing parties that they remain united in a 55-seat bloc, and then by continuing to demonise the successful Joint List of Arab parties, which won 13 seats, as dangerous partners for his rivals.
Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, has yet to make a decision on who he will officially appoint to lead coalition negotiations, a process that can take more than a month. Mr Netanyahu failed to clinch a majority during coalition talks in April, and parliament was dissolved.
A hearing on October 3 on whether Mr Netanyahu should be indicted on corruption charges, provides both leverage and breathing room for Mr Gantz. His public pledge to run a clean government was backed by a vow not to support Mr Netanyahu for prime minister if he is under indictment. Mr Netanyahu has denied all the charges against him.
The rightwing bloc also includes two ultraorthodox parties that loathe one of Mr Gantz’s partners, Yair Lapid, who runs the more middle-class, secular wing of the Blue and White party. It is unlikely that the two groups could resolve their differences in order to sit in a unity government, having spent years demonising each other as threats to Israeli democracy.
But with no clear path for his own party to make a claim for the premiership, Mr Gantz must consider ways to avoid a third election, which would throw Israel into unprecedented policy paralysis. His party told local press that Mr Netanyahu’s offer was “mere spin”, and a way to blame Blue and White if a third election is forced.