JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s president summoned the leaders of the country’s two largest political parties to his official residence late Monday, hoping to break a political deadlock that threatens to push the nation into months of limbo and potentially force a third election in less than a year.
Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, commented as President Reuven Rivlin brought them together for a photo at the beginning of the meeting. The two men looked tense and uncomfortable as Rivlin forced a smile.
In a joint statement after the meeting, the sides said that negotiators would continue the talks Tuesday and that Rivlin had invited the two leaders back to meet with him on Wednesday evening.
The Israeli president is responsible for choosing a candidate for prime minister after national elections. That task is usually a formality, given to the leader who has the best chance of forming a stable majority coalition in the 120-seat parliament.
But last week’s election ended in deadlock, with neither Netanyahu, who has ruled the country for the past decade, nor Gantz able to put together a coalition with smaller allied political parties. That has greatly complicated Rivlin’s task. A unity deal between the large parties is seen as perhaps the only way out of the impasse.
“People expect you to find a solution and to prevent further elections, even if it comes at a personal and even ideological cost. This is not the time to exclude people.” Rivlin told the two leaders.
In their joint statement, the two parties gave no details about Monday night’s talks.
Gantz later said that “there was much talk about unity,” but that he would stick to his principles. “The public has chosen change and we have no intention of relinquishing our lead, our principles and our natural partners in this path,” he said.
Rivlin has spent the past two days meeting with leaders of all parties elected to parliament.
Gantz’s centrist Blue and White came in first, with 33 seats, trailed by Netanyahu’s Likud, with 31. With smaller allied parties, a total of 55 lawmakers have thrown their support behind Netanyahu, and 54 in favor of Gantz, leaving both men short of the required 61-seat majority.
Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, has emerged as the key power broker. Lieberman, who controls eight seats, has refused to endorse either candidate. He’s demanded they join him in a broad, secular unity government.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz have expressed support for a unity deal between their parties. But there are deep, seemingly unbridgeable differences between them.
Gantz has said he will not partner with Likud as long as Netanyahu is at the helm, citing the prime minister’s legal problems. Israel’s attorney general has recommended charging Netanyahu with a series of corruption-related charges and is expected to make a final decision following a hearing with the prime minister early next month.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, believes he should remain at the helm of a unity government and has signed a deal with his smaller allies, including ultra-Orthodox parties, to negotiate as a “bloc.”
Lieberman, a former ally of Netanyahu’s, refuses to sit in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties. In April, the Soviet-born politician refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition following elections, triggered the Sept. 17 repeat vote. Lieberman objected to what he said was excessive influence by the religious parties, leaving Netanyahu without a majority and forcing him to call the new election.
Israeli media said no breakthroughs were expected at Monday’s meeting.
Rivlin is expected by Wednesday to designate either Gantz or Netanyahu with the seemingly impossible task of trying to cobble together a government.
His choice will have up to six weeks to reach a deal with coalition partners. If he fails, Rivlin can choose another candidate for prime minister. If those efforts fail, the country could be forced into a third election.
During Rivlin’s consultations, most parties made their expected recommendations: Nationalist and religious parties lined up behind Netanyahu’s Likud, while two more centrist parties sided with Gantz despite his military background.
In a break from custom, a coalition of Arab parties endorsed Gantz, the first time they had recommended a candidate since 1992. Arab parties have usually refrained from an endorsement, not wanting to be seen as legitimizing Israeli policies they consider discriminatory or hostile toward their Palestinian brethren.
Arab leaders said the decision was aimed at toppling Netanyahu, whose anti-Arab rhetoric has offended the country’s Arab minority, as well as expressing their growing political influence. The Arab public makes up about 20% of Israel’s population.
But on Monday, three Arab lawmakers said they were withdrawing their recommendations for Gantz, trimming his support to below Netanyahu’s.
In last week’s vote, Netanyahu had hoped to secure a narrow majority of hard-line and religious parties that would grant him immunity from prosecution on charges that could include bribery, breach of trust and fraud. But now that possibility appears to be off the table.
Israeli law does not require a sitting premier to resign if indicted. But if he is charged, as is widely expected, he will come under heavy pressure to step down.