By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited his main rival, Benny Gantz, on Thursday to join him in a broad coalition government — an abrupt change of strategy after failing to win a ruling majority in election.
Gantz, a former armed forces chief who heads the centrist Blue and White Party, planned to make a statement at 2 p.m. (1100 GMT), a spokesman said.
Making the surprise offer, Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party and Israel’s longest-serving leader, said in a video clip that in the run-up to Tuesday’s election, he had pledged to form a right-wing government.
“But to my regret, the election results show that this is impossible,” Netanyahu said. “Benny, we must set up a broad unity government, as soon as today. The nation expects us, both of us, to demonstrate responsibility and that we pursue cooperation.”
In subsequent comments, at a ceremony – which Gantz also attended – marking the third anniversary of the death of Israeli statesman 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 top office between 1984 and 1988.
Netanyahu’s comments reflected his heightened political vulnerability after again failing to security a parliamentary majority, following an inconclusive election in April.
President Reuven Rivlin, who commands wide respect in Israel in his largely ceremonial position, said he welcomed Netanyahu’s unity call. Under Israeli law, Rivlin taps a party leader to try to form a government after the final vote tally is in.
The campaigns run by Netanyahu, 69, and Gantz, 60, pointed to only narrow differences on many important issues, and an end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring about significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran or the Palestinian conflict.
With Israeli media reporting more than 95 percent of votes counted in Tuesday’s election, a Likud-led right-wing, religious bloc looked poised to control 55 of parliament’s 120 seats, with 56 going to a center-left alliance.
On Wednesday, Gantz said he hoped for a “good, desirable unity government”. But he has also ruled out forming one with a Netanyahu-led Likud, citing looming corruption charges against the prime minister. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
Gantz is a newcomer to politics. Many voters saw him as a “Mr Clean”, an alternative to Netanyahu and the cloud of alleged criminal misdeeds hanging over him.
Netanyahu’s call for a broad government preceded a scheduled visit later on Thursday by Jason Greenblatt, an architect of U.S. President Donald Trump’s as-yet unveiled plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Israeli cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi, a senior Likud member, said he believed Greenblatt was coming to discuss the peace blueprint.
Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, have rejected the Trump plan out of hand, accusing the president of pro-Israeli bias.
“As to whether he (Greenblatt) will be presenting the plan, I have no idea,” Hanegbi said on Army Radio.
With Israeli politics in flux, Netanyahu canceled his annual speech at the U.N. General Assembly next week, a spokesman said on Wednesday about a visit that might have provided an opportunity to meet with Trump.
Netanyahu highlighted his close ties with Trump in his election campaign. But in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Trump appeared to distance himself from Netanyahu, amid political stalemate in Israel.
He told reporters he had not spoken to Netanyahu since Tuesday’s ballot and said: “Our relationship is with Israel”.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams, Editing by Timothy Heritage)