Netanyahu eyes unity government, Gantz demands PM role

Benny Gantz' Blue and White party says it will not enter a coalition government headed by incumbent PM Netanyahu, whose failure to secure a right-wing coalition has put his long tenure at risk.

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on his main challenger Benny Gantz Thursday to form a unity government together, a major development after deadlocked election results put his long tenure in office at risk.

But Gantz said Thursday he should be prime minister in the event of a broad unity government.

Gantz spoke to journalists as results from Tuesday's vote showed neither of the main contenders with an obvious path to form a majority coalition. Gantz's centrist Blue and White is nevertheless two seats ahead of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, according to results so far published by Israeli media.

Netanyahu, in a video message, said he preferred to form a right-wing coalition, but the results showed it was not possible.

The stark admission followed a general election that has threatened Netanyahu's status as the country's longest-serving prime minister as he faces possible corruption charges in the weeks ahead.

"During the elections, I called for the establishment of a right-wing government," Netanyahu said in a video message. "But unfortunately the election results show that this is not possible."

He went on to call on Gantz to form a "broad unity government today."

'Thank you for all you've done'

Responding to Netanyahu's call, Gantz made no mention of the prime minister and said he himself would head a "liberal" coalition, political shorthand for one that excludes the Israeli leader's long-time ultra-Orthodox allies.

Speaking to journalists, Gantz said: "The public voted clearly in favour of unity.

"Blue and White has at the time I am speaking won 33 seats, while Netanyahu has not obtained a sufficient majority to form a coalition as he hoped."

The ex-military chief, who mounted his challenge to Netanyahu without any prior political experience, went on to say: "We will listen to everyone, but we will not accept mandates imposed on us."

Gantz then left it to Moshe Yaalon, a fellow Blue and White leader, to deliver a stinging rejection of a partnership with Netanyahu, citing looming corruption charges against the prime minister, who has denied any wrongdoing.

"We will not enter a coalition led by Netanyahu," Yaalon said, echoing a position Gantz had taken throughout the election campaign and appearing to suggest that an alliance with Likud would be possible if it dumped its veteran chief.

"The time has come for you to tell Netanyahu, 'thank you for all you've done'," Yaalon urged Likud members - who have shown no sign so far of rebellion.

Netanyahu responded with a statement shortly after saying he "was surprised and disappointed that at this time Benny Gantz still refuses to respond to my call to meet."

"It's what the public expects of us," Netanyahu said about a broad government.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who must choose who will form the next government, welcomed Netanyahu's call for a unity coalition.

"I hear, loud and clear, the voices calling for a broad and stable national unity government," he said at the memorial, held to mark the third anniversary of the death of veteran statesman Shimon Peres.

"And I congratulate you, Mr. prime minister, on joining that call this morning."

Second election this year

Netanyahu was seeking to seize momentum by announcing his intention to form a unity government and head off attempts to oust him.

Blue and White, a centrist alliance, has in the past sought to appeal to members of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud to abandon him and form a unity government with it. There has so far been no signal that any Likud members would be willing to do that.

Official results have not been announced, but Israeli media have reported that Blue and White has 33 parliamentary seats and Likud 31 out of 120 with 97 percent of the votes counted.

Ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman has emerged as a potential kingmaker, with the reported results showing his nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party with eight seats. He has called for a secular unity government.

Israel's newly reunified Arab parties, running together under the Joint List alliance, have also emerged as an important force, with the reported results showing them with 13 seats - the third-largest.

That could allow them to block Netanyahu from continuing on as prime minister if they decided to break with precedent and endorse Gantz.

Israel's Arab parties have traditionally not endorsed anyone for prime minister. So-called "Israeli Arabs" are indigenous Palestinians who remained on their land following the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. They largely identify with other Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and oppose Israel's military occupation of Palestinian territory.

While some Arab politicians have voiced misgivings about Gantz’s record in Israeli military uniform, others have hinted they may grudgingly back him as an antidote to Netanyahu.

The Palestinian Authority meanwhile has not ruled Gantz out as a peace partner.

“We do respect (the) democratic outcome of elections in Israel. Whoever will form the government - we are ready to sit with him or her to restart the negotiations,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said at a news conference in Oslo on Wednesday.

After complete, official results are in, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will hold consultations with all parties voted into parliament and then choose someone to try to form a government.

It will be the second time he has done so since April.

Netanyahu suffered one of the biggest defeats of his political career after April elections.

His Likud along with its right-wing and religious allies won a majority, but he failed to form a coalition and opted for a second election rather than risk having Rivlin choose someone else to try.

Narrow differences

The campaigns run by Netanyahu, 69, and Gantz, 60, pointed to only narrow differences on many important issues, and an end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring about significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran or the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Gantz is a newcomer to politics. Many voters saw him as a "Mr Clean", an alternative to Netanyahu and the cloud of alleged criminal misdeeds hanging over him.

Gantz casts himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians but stopping short of any commitment to the statehood they seek. Where Netanyahu envisages annexing the Jordan Valley, part of occupied West Bank land, Gantz has spoken less concretely of Israel maintaining security control of the strategic corridor.

Gantz, former chief of Israel's army, launched his political career earlier this year with a bombastic ad campaign that claimed credit for hundreds of “terrorist” kills in Hamas-ruled Gaza - a reference to assaults he oversaw on the impoverished territory whose civilian Palestinian toll drew international condemnation.

As Israelis voted on Tuesday, a Dutch Palestinian who lost six relatives to Israeli forces in Gaza in 2014 sought war crimes damages against Gantz at The Hague. Gantz fired back defiantly that Israel has “the most moral army in the world”.

Netanyahu's call for a broad government preceded a scheduled visit later on Thursday by Jason Greenblatt, an architect of US President Donald Trump's as-yet unveiled plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Israeli cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi, a senior Likud member, said he believed Greenblatt was coming to discuss the peace blueprint.

Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, have rejected the Trump plan out of hand, accusing the president of pro-Israeli bias.

"As to whether he (Greenblatt) will be presenting the plan, I have no idea," Hanegbi said on Army Radio.

With Israeli politics in flux, Netanyahu cancelled his annual speech at the U.N. General Assembly next week, a spokesman said on Wednesday about a visit that might have provided an opportunity to meet with Trump.

Netanyahu highlighted his close ties with Trump in his election campaign. But in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Trump appeared to distance himself from Netanyahu amid the political stalemate in Israel.

He told reporters he had not spoken to Netanyahu since Tuesday's ballot and said: "Our relationship is with Israel".