Israel's President Reuven Rivlin today met with representatives of the country's political parties to begin coalition talks following last week's general election.
Tuesday's election saw incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party win 36 seats, beating its nearest rival – Benny Gantz's Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance – to the top spot. Nine other parties passed the 3.25 per cent minimum vote threshold needed to sit in the Knesset, meaning their party representatives are now able to recommend their choice of prime minister to President Rivlin.
Likud representatives were the first to meet Rivlin this morning, since the party won the most seats in the election. Likud's representatives included Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin, Minister of Culture Miri Regev and Knesset Member (MK) David Bitan.
According to the Jerusalem Post, the trio recommended that Netanyahu form the new government, with Regev pointing out that he "received the clear trust of the nation". When President Rivlin asked Levin what would happen if Netanyahu does not receive recommendations from the majority of MKs, Levin said "he still would be not only the best candidate but the only candidate who can form a government".
Next to meet the president were representatives of the Blue and White alliance, among them former Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon and party number four Gabi Ashkenazi. The representatives recommended their own party head, Benny Gantz, to form the government, with Ashkenazi telling Rivlin that "under the current political circumstances, we won't be able to serve" in a Netanyahu-led government.
Some had speculated that Rivlin would ask Blue and White to serve in a unity government with the Likud party, a move which would see them combine their 71 seats to form the biggest Knesset bloc. However, he today seemed to dismiss these claims, stressing that "the president does not select the prime minister. The sovereign picks the prime minister and the public is the sovereign".
Three other parties met with Rivlin today, including the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), as well as the predominantly Arab-Israeli alliance Hadash-Ta'al. As expected, Shas and UTJ recommended Netanyahu to form the new government, meeting the incumbent prime minister earlier today to coordinate their demands ahead of the meeting.
For its part, Hadash-Ta'al has not recommended anyone to form the new government, being strongly opposed to both Netanyahu and Gantz on the grounds that they do little to support Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up some 20 per cent of the country's population.
Meetings will continue tomorrow, during which time the remaining parties will be able to make their own recommendations to President Rivlin. These include the Israeli Labor party, Yisrael Beiteinu, the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP), Meretz, Kulanu and Ra'am-Balad. These discussions could prove crucial since, unlike most other right-wing parties, Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman has not openly agreed to support Netanyahu. Instead he has imposed stringent conditions on his allegiance, including the removal of Hamas from the besieged Gaza Strip, an issue over which he previously resigned as defence minister.
Today represented the first time coalition talks have been broadcast publically. Though the process usually takes place behind closed doors, today the talks were streamed live from President Rivlin's residence in a bid to increase transparency surrounding the process. In a statement, Rivlin's office explained its decision saying: "In a historic and pioneering decision, the president announced that his meetings with the various factions will be broadcast live, on all platforms, in the name of transparency."
Rivlin's decision is likely also motivated by Netanyahu's repeated campaign allegations that the president is biased against his candidacy. Just a week before the election, a recording released by Israel's Channel 12 appeared to show Netanyahu telling Likud party members that President Rivlin "is just looking for an excuse" to task rival Gantz with forming a government.
Netanyahu continued: "If there is a gap of three, four, five mandates [for Blue and White], [Rivlin] will use this as an excuse, he'll give [the task of forming a government] to Gantz. Wake up."
Rivlin's office was forced to issue a statement responding to these allegations, saying the accusations were "another despicable attempt to harm the public's trust in the president's decision after the elections." The statement continued: "The president of the country won't be tempted by flattery and is not afraid of attacks like these, which are repeated irresponsibly and motivated by cynical political considerations."
At an event held in Jerusalem this weekend, Rivlin reportedly asked not to be seated next to Netanyahu, saying "these are sensitive days of consultations with [political] factions". The request was interpreted as further indication of the pair's strained relations.