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Gantz says he should be prime minister in Israel unity government

Blue and White party leader made statement after Netanyahu called for them to join together in a coalition
A smiling Netanyahu, left, and Gantz, right, warmly shook hands at a memorial event for Shimon Peres on Thursday (AFP)

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, 60, made the statement after Netanyahu, 69, called for them to join together with other parties after results from Tuesday's vote showed neither with an obvious path to form a majority coalition. 

Gantz's party is two seats ahead of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, according to results so far published by Israeli media.

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"In order to form a unity government, one can't come with political blocs and spins," Gantz said, according to Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

"You come with responsibility and seriousness. I attend to act accordingly."

"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".

Gantz said that his party "will bring about real change and heal Israeli society," adding that he will not accept any dictates, Haaretz reported.

"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.

"We will not enter a coalition led by Netanyahu," Yaalon said, echoing a position Gantz had taken throughout the election campaign and appearing to suggest that an alliance with Likud would be possible if it dumped its veteran chief.

"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. 

"Gantz, my offer that the two of us meet stands. It's what the public expects of us."

'Benny, let's meet today'

Earlier on Thursday, Netanyahu had called on former general Gantz, to join him in a broad, governing coalition. 

The change of strategy reflected Netanyahu's weakened position after he failed again in Tuesday's election, which followed an inconclusive ballot in April, to secure a parliamentary majority.

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"During the election campaign, I called for the establishment of 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.

"So I'm calling on you, Benny, let's meet today, at any hour, to advance this process that is the mission of the hour. We cannot go to third elections, there's no reason to – I oppose it," Netanyahu said. 

Netanyahu said he had spoken to the other right-wing leaders and they planned to enter talks for a national unity government as a unified bloc, saying that the government should be "as wide as possible".

Rotating premership

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.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who is tasked with approving any government that might emerge, welcomed Netanyahu's call.

"I congratulate you, Mr Prime Minister, on your joining in this call. This is an important call," Rivlin said in a speech at the event.

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 favour Gantz, a former head of the Israeli army.

Israel elections

Gantz had said on Wednesday he hoped for a "good, desirable unity government". 

But he ruled out forming one with a Netanyahu-led Likud, citing looming corruption charges against the prime minister. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party is projected to have eight seats, is expected to be the election's kingmaker. 

On Wednesday, he reiterated his support for a "broad liberal unity government," which would include Yisrael Beiteinu, Likud and the Blue and White party.

US President Donald Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he has not spoken with Netanyahu about an election he described as close, adding "we'll see what happens."

Netanyahu, who highlighted his close ties with Trump while campaigning for the election, has cancelled his annual speech at the UN General Assembly next week that might have provided an opportunity for the two leaders to meet.