Israel's Netanyahu, Gantz teams begin negotiations for unity government
The chief negotiators for Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and Gantz's centrist Blue and White gathered to follow up on a meeting between their two leaders and Israel's president late on Monday.
That encounter was their first formal meeting since the 17 September election ended with Gantz winning the most seats, but with neither having a clear path to a majority coalition.
President Reuven Rivlin said the two leaders made "significant steps" in the Monday meeting and the two men are due to meet with him again on Wednesday.
The negotiators' meeting concluded after two hours, with a joint statement saying it was "topical and carried out in good spirits".
The Likud negotiator, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, noted he was representing "all 55 members of the right-wing bloc".
The two negotiators said they would update their bosses on the meeting "and then decide on further talks and additional steps".
Rivlin, who must choose who will form the next government, has leaned heavily on the two parties to work out a unity coalition between them, and on Monday night urged them to find a path to do so.
Both Gantz and Netanyahu say they want a unity government but are at odds over who will lead it, not to mention further details on the make-up of such a coalition.
A rotation arrangement has been floated, but the question of who would be premier first remains a major stumbling block.
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The timing is especially important for Netanyahu, who is facing possible corruption charges in the weeks ahead, pending a hearing set for early October.
A prime minister does not have to step down if indicted - only if convicted with all appeals exhausted - while other ministers can be forced to do so when charged.
Gantz notes that his party is the largest and he should be in the lead.
"The public has chosen change and we have no intention of relinquishing our lead, our principles or our natural partners in this path," Gantz said in a statement late Monday.
'What I promised'
Netanyahu has highlighted the fact that he has more support from smaller parties in parliament and pledged not to abandon them in a coalition deal.
"I am committed to what I promised you," he said after Monday night's meeting, addressing right-wing and religious parties allied to his Likud.
According to Israeli media, Netanyahu received 55 endorsements for Prime Minister from elected representatives, while Gantz received 54.
Netanyahu and the heads of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties signed a document on Thursday committing to conduct joint negotiations and enter a government together.
On Sunday, the Arab Joint List announced that it recommended Gantz, saying its decision was not meant as approval of the ex-military chief's policies but as a way of helping oust current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
But the Arab Balad party broke with protocol and refused to endorse Gantz because of his racism toward Palestinians.
The 17 September election saw Blue and White win 33 seats compared to Likud's 31 out of parliament's 120.
The Arab Joint List became the Knesset's third-largest force with 13 seats.
It was the second election since April after polls that month also finished inconclusively.
The standoff has raised the possibility of yet another election - a prospect Rivlin has vowed to do all he can to prevent.
"The public does not want another election. They came out and voted, and now it is your turn," he told Netanyahu and Gantz on Monday night.
"The responsibility for establishing a government falls on you, and the people expect you to find a solution and to prevent further elections, even if it comes at a personal and even ideological cost."
Gantz, an ex-military chief who mounted his challenge to the prime minister with no prior political experience, will face a formidable negotiating foe in Netanyahu.
He is Israel's longest-serving prime minister, having held the post for a total of more than 13 years, and has repeatedly outmanoeuvred rivals with his sharp political skills.
Rivlin is expected to designate a candidate to try to form a government sometime after he receives final official election results on Wednesday.
The timing of his announcement may depend on the progress of negotiations between the Likud and Blue and White.
The person chosen would then have 28 days to do so, with a possible two-week extension.
If all attempts fail, Rivlin can then assign the task to someone else.
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