Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz said on Thursday he should be prime minister in a “liberal” coalition, political shorthand for one that excludes Benjamin Netanyahu’s long-time ultra-Orthodox allies, rejecting the Israeli premier’s offer of talks to form a government.
Gantz’s party is two seats ahead of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, according to results so far published by Israeli media.
“In order to form a unity government, one can’t come with political blocs and spins,” Gantz said, according to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.
“After an election that was forced on Israel, [Israel] voted and made a clear choice. The people voted for unity and Kahol Lavan (the Blue and White party) won the election. It’s the biggest party,” said Gantz.
“The Israeli people wanted a unity government after the last election too,” said Gantz, promising to form a “broad, liberal unity government”.
“This negotiation will require patience and sticking to our principles,” he said. “There will be no shortcuts.”
Netanyahu voiced disappointment at Gantz’s rejection of his offer to discuss forming a unity government but said he remained opened to talks.
‘We will not enter a coalition led by Netanyahu’
Gantz left it to Moshe Yaalon, a fellow Blue and White leader, to deliver a stinging rejection of any partnership with Netanyahu, citing looming corruption charges against the prime minister, who has denied any wrongdoing.
“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 said he was “surprised and disappointed” by Gantz’s comments and reiterated his call for him to join him.
“I was surprised and disappointed by the fact that, as of now, Benny Gantz still refuses my call to meet,” Netanyahu said on Twitter.
At ceremony on Thursday, before Gantz’s response, marking the third anniversary of the death of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, Netanyahu said his offer came with no preconditions.
A smiling Netanyahu and Gantz warmly shook hands at the event.
Netanyahu hinted at a possible rotating premiership deal with Gantz, noting that Peres, a left-wing leader, had forged a coalition with conservative Yitzhak Shamir in which they rotated the top office between 1984 and 1988.
With 97 percent of the votes counted, the Blue and White party has won 33 out of 120 Knesset seats, with Likud on 31 seats.
Netanyahu’s bloc, comprised of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, currently stands at 55 seats. The centre-left bloc has a total of 57 seats.
The final votes to be counted come from soldiers, diplomats and the disabled, which may favor Gantz, a former head of the Israeli army.
In a down and dirty campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannibalized the Right, declared that Israeli-Arabs are the enemy of the state – and came up short at the ballot box. The prime minister stood in Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station with a bullhorn on Tuesday and spoke of the dangers of a large Arab turnout. He said that they were doing so at the urging of the Palestinian Authority.
It was a move that backfired, as the Joint List moved up from 10 seats in April to 13 seats this time, equaling its 2015 count.