Israel’s two main parties have entered what could be several days of tense negotiations to form a unity government after final results from last week’s election confirmed an inconclusive, razor-thin margin between them.
The central election committee released an official vote tally on Wednesday, showing Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party one seat behind the Blue and White party, run by the former military chief Benny Gantz. Critically, neither had enough support from lawmakers in the 120-seat Knesset to form a majority coalition.
Negotiators representing the two leaders met on Tuesday to hash out what a government composed of the two parties might look like, and Netanyahu and Gantz were due to meet on Wednesday evening.
There was, however, little optimism they could forge a deal, as both men have demanded the top seat. Gantz, whose election campaign focused on ending the prime minister’s 13-year rule, has also repeatedly pledged not to serve with Netanyahu while he faces three potential indictments for corruption.
President Reuven Rivlin is required by law to choose a candidate within a week, although amid the deadlock he has pressed for the bickering politicians to join forces instead.
There is a precedent in Israel for political rivals to serve together after Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres rotated the role of prime minister in the mid-1980s, each agreeing to serve two years.
If they do reach an agreement, Netanyahu would be under added pressure to serve first. Prime ministers are not required to step down if indicted for corruption and his pre-trial hearing is set for early October. He has denied all allegations.
Rivlin faces a tough challenge but has attempted to show progress. His office released a photograph of the three men clasping hands at a Monday meeting. “The responsibility for establishing a government falls on you, and the people expect you to find a solution,” Rivlin told Netanyahu and Gantz.
Israeli media reported that negotiations have focused on policy issues to build confidence, rather than solely the big questions of who leads and who gets which ministerial post.
Gantz told his followers on Tuesday evening that Blue and White had gone into negotiations “with an open mind and heart”. But he added: “That said, it is important that everyone understands that we will not relinquish our principles or our partners.”
Further complicating talks, Netanyahu struck an agreement with rightwing and religious parties that back him to make sure they are part of any future government.
Sticking to the bloc could stonewall negotiations as Gantz has promised to run only in a secular government. His Blue and White party wants civil marriage and to open shops on the sabbath, a holy day of rest. These issues could be deal-breakers for religious politicians.
If negotiations break down, the president can choose either candidate, who will then have up to six weeks to form a majority government. If that person fails, Rivlin can ask a second person.
That scenario played out in May after Netanyahu failed to cobble together a coalition after a similar election result. But rather than give the opposition a chance to forge a government, he instead pushed to dissolve the Knesset, triggering repeat elections and giving himself another chance.
Many fear a third election will be called if the stalemate continues.