The Yisrael Beytenu Party leader Avigdor Liberman reportedly told associates that he intends to recommend Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz as the next prime minister rather than Benjamin Netanyahu.

Liberman’s comments, made behind closed doors according to an unsourced Channel 12 news report on Thursday afternoon, would mark a significant boost to Gantz, who is seeking President Reuven Rivlin’s backing to form a new government and unseat Netanyahu.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Yevgeni Suba denied the report later Thursday, however. “We’re not recommending anybody at this stage — not Gantz and not Netanyahu,” he said, noting that Gantz has not ruled out sitting in a coalition including the ultra-Orthodox parties, which Suba said was a core Liberman demand.

According to near-final election results, Liberman holds the key to forming the next government following a political deadlock between Netanyahu’s Likud and Blue and White.

Liberman has vowed to push for a “liberal, nationalist, wide” unity government made up of both Likud and Blue and White, and his support for Gantz, if forthcoming, could hold extra weight with Rivlin as he holds consultations with party leaders about whom to task with forming a government.

Liberman’s support could give Gantz the numbers to form a minority government comprising Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp, with majority support in the Knesset based on the tacit backing, from outside the coalition, of the Joint List alliance of Arab parties. But Liberman might not be prepared to join a coalition on that basis.

Yisrael Beytenu will convene on Sunday for a faction meeting to decide on its next moves.

Earlier in the day, the leaders of all the parties in the right-wing religious bloc signed a document pledging to recommend Netanyahu as the next prime minister and vowing to enter a coalition only as a single unit. The premier then called on Gantz to join a government that includes those parties, pressuring him to drop his demand for a “secular” unity government with Likud.

Gantz and other Blue and White leaders dismissed the offer, insisting that the next coalition must have Gantz as prime minister, not Netanyahu, and be committed to liberal policies on religious issues.

Liberman has repeatedly called for a unity government that only includes Likud, Blue and White and his own party. After this week’s elections, Liberman told Netanyahu and Gantz not to bother contacting him to seek his support if they didn’t plan to form such a government.

Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In a Facebook post Thursday, Liberman blasted Netanyahu and accused him of “deceiving” the public by proposing a unity government but conditioning it on the inclusion of the ultra-Orthodox and religious right-wing parties.

“As the election result begin to clarify, Netanyahu is working full time on his new spin that will lead Israel to another round of elections in hope of getting a 61 majority for his dream government,” Liberman said. “Forming a ‘halachic bloc’ of 55-56 MKs for Likud, Haredi parties and messianists, and calling on Benny Gantz to join a unity government with that bloc, is no less than deception and misrepresentation to lay the groundwork for a third election.

“Netanyahu, who refuses to accept the public’s decision and admit his own defeat, is grasping at straws trying to create the impression that Likud supposedly won the election and called for a unity government and Gantz and Liberman thwarted that. In reality, he is continuing his attempts to persuade MKs from other parties to join him and the ‘halachic bloc’ he formed.

“I again urge the prime minister to stop the political games, tricks and stunts. Let’s sit down — you, me and Benny Gantz — and form a broad national unity government for Israel’s future.”

With almost all votes counted, the Orthodox/right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu has 55 seats, the centrist/left bloc led by Gantz has 44, and Yisrael Beytenu holds the balance of power with eight. The predominantly Arab Joint List, which has not said whether it will actively back Gantz, has 13 seats.

While not enough to form a coalition on its own, Netanyahu is hoping that Rivlin will treat his 55-seat bloc as a single large party and therefore agree to task Netanyahu with forming the next government.

In the document, the right-wing leaders promised that their parties “will conduct coalition negotiations jointly and will enter any government only together. No party will hold any separate negotiations or enter any government without all the rest of the parties.”

Crucially, the document declares: “Our candidate for prime minister is Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu urged Gantz to meet with him one-on-one Thursday at “any time, any hour” to form the coalition by the end of the day.

At a faction meeting Thursday afternoon, Gantz responded to the proposal: “I intend to form a broad unity government headed by me, which would reflect the people’s choice and our basic promises to the public and our priorities. We won’t succumb to any imposition. To form a unity government, one doesn’t come with political blocs and spin, but with seriousness and responsibility.”

The party’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, took a more combative approach, saying: “Netanyahu is trying to drag the country to a third election. He’s simply unwilling to accept the results of the election. One person is preventing the formation of a liberal unity government. One person. That’s the aim of the bloc of extortionists and extremists he created yesterday.”

Blue and White has repeatedly ruled out sitting in a government under Netanyahu, who is expected to face a criminal indictment in the coming months, pending a hearing. His political opponents warn that should he be named prime minister again, he would use the position to secure himself immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu responded by saying he was “surprised and disappointed” by Gantz’s “refusal as of now to accept my offer to meet. The president called for unity, and without a meeting between the leaders of the two biggest parties a unity government cannot be formed.”

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