Rivals call off Israel unity govt talks with Netanyahu

Jerusalem (AFP) –


The party of Israel's ex-military chief Benny Gantz on Tuesday pulled out of planned talks on forming a unity government with main rival Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following deadlocked elections.

Representatives of the centrist Blue and White alliance were set to meet Wednesday with counterparts from Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, followed by a face-to-face encounter between the two rivals.

But on Tuesday night, following a two-day holiday to mark the Jewish New Year, Gantz's party announced it had cancelled the talks.

"At this stage, the pre-conditions upon which any further meetings between the negotiating teams may take place have not been met," Blue and White said in a statement.

"In view of this, no meeting will be held on Wednesday," it added, without ruling out talks at a later date.

"When deemed appropriate and necessary, an additional meeting will be scheduled for this week or next," the party said, adding that the head-to-head with Netanyahu had also been called off.

Since the deadlocked September 17 polls, Netanyahu has been scrambling to extend his run as Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

The embattled premier is also set Wednesday to begin pre-indictment hearings led by Israel's attorney general, who has said he intends to charge Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu's lawyers, not the premier himself, are expected to attend the closed-door hearings, due to run four days, giving him a final chance to convince Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit he should not be indicted.

Likud said in a statement that it was "stunned by Blue and White's decision to blow up the negotiations and cancel the meetings" on Wednesday.

"Netanyahu calls once again on Benny Gantz to show responsibility, to prevent new elections and to meet him as planned."

Both sides held out hope for a change of heart by their opponents, but Netanyahu had already labelled Wednesday's planned talks a "last effort".

This month's poll was the second this year, after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following April polls.

Should Netanyahu again tell President Reuven Rivlin he cannot form a government, the head of state will then have to decide whether to ask Gantz to try.

Alternatively, Rivlin could call on parliament to agree on a candidate for prime minister with a vote of at least 61 of 120 members.