October 1, 2019 / 5:53 PM / 20 days ago

Israeli unity government talks falter after Netanyahu rival rejects meeting

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Talks to form a national unity government in Israel hit a further snag on Tuesday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s centrist election rival called off a meeting with the embattled leader.

FILE PHOTO: Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks at the party's headquarters after the announcement of exit polls during Israel's parliamentary election in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 18, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

Netanyahu said on Sunday he would make a final effort this week to reach an agreement and would likely meet with his challenger Benny Gantz on Wednesday after further negotiations between their parties.

On Sunday, Blue and White said it would “hold any meeting and spare no effort” to form a broad unity government. But on Tuesday the party said conditions were not ripe yet to hold effective negotiations between the parties and their leaders.

An inconclusive ballot on Sept. 17, the second this year, has created a political deadlock and left Israel’s longest-serving prime minister weakened.

Netanyahu, facing a looming indictment on corruption allegations he denies, has failed to secure a clear election victory twice in six months. His right-wing Likud party came second with 32 seats in the 120-member parliament, against 33 for former military chief Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party.

The parties’ negotiators had met on Sunday without success, with each side blaming the other for the stalemate.

With neither party leader appearing able to put together a coalition with a ruling majority on his own, Israel’s president last week tasked Netanyahu with forming the next government in the hope of securing a power-sharing deal between the Blue and White party and Likud.

If Netanyahu fails to clinch a deal, President Reuven Rivlin is then likely to ask Gantz to try to form a government, though he, like Netanyahu, also has no clear path to power.

Gantz has pledged not to serve in a government under a premier facing criminal charges. His party has accused Likud of stalling in the talks in the hope of triggering yet another election.

Israel’s attorney-general is due to hold a pre-trial hearing this week on his announced intention to indict Netanyahu on fraud and bribery charges in three corruption cases.

Netanyahu, who says he is a victim of a political witchhunt, can argue at the session against prosecution. A final decision by the attorney-general on an indictment is expected by the end of 2019.

Reporting by Maayan Lubell; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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