JERUSALEM — Seizing the initiative in Israel’s postelection political gridlock, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday called on his main rival, Benny Gantz, to meet immediately to discuss forming a government of national unity together.
Mr. Netanyahu, facing a looming indictment in three corruption cases, is fighting for his political survival and, potentially, his freedom. His only chance of gaining immunity from prosecution would be to remain in the top office, though neither he nor Mr. Gantz emerged from Tuesday’s election with a clear path to the premiership.
Mr. Gantz had already called for a unity government, but for Mr. Netanyahu, time is of the essence. He has a special hearing with the attorney general set for Oct. 2, and charges could be filed soon after.
Tuesday’s redo election was Israel’s second in five months, after an April ballot also ended inconclusively.
“I call on you, Benny, let’s meet today, at any hour, at any time, to set in motion this process,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video message, calling it a matter of utmost urgency.
Mr. Gantz responded at a meeting of his Blue and White party that the people had voted for unity and that he was ready to negotiate for a unity government — but one under his leadership.
“We will not give in to any dictate,” he said. “I will conduct the negotiations responsibly and judiciously.”
“There will be no shortcuts,” he said.
The centrist Blue and White came out of the election with a slight edge over Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud. As the final votes were being tallied, Blue and White was projected to have won 33 seats to Likud’s 31.
Together, they would have a slim majority of 64 in the 120-seat Parliament. Neither has enough support from other parties to build a viable coalition on its own without defections from parties across the lines. The center-left bloc of parties appears to have won 57 seats, to 55 for the right-wing and religious parties.
[Read about how the election has also given new heft to Israel’s Arab politicians.]
Now Mr. Netanyahu, a brutal political warrior who had vilified his opponents during the campaign as soft leftists, is loudly staking a claim to be the bridge builder.
Yair Lapid, the second-ranking leader of Blue and White, dismissed Mr. Netanyahu’s call as mere political spin. “Netanyahu is trying to drag the country to a third election,” Mr. Lapid said. “He’s simply unwilling to accept the results of the election.”
On Thursday afternoon, hours after his initial call for unity, Mr. Netanyahu made a pre-emptive effort to blame Mr. Gantz for any deadlock, issuing a statement saying he was “disappointed that at this time Benny Gantz still refuses to respond to my call to meet.”
Analysts had predicted that the prime minister would engage in postelection maneuvering designed to confound his political opponents, and some Blue and White members warned that his appeal for a broad coalition was a bluff, designed to set Mr. Gantz up for failure.
“Netanyahu can place conditions that Gantz cannot meet,” said Abraham Diskin, an Israeli professor of political science. The negotiating teams of both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz were “very shrewd,” he added. “We will eat the meal they cook.”
The secular, ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Liberman, a former Netanyahu ally turned nemesis, has refused to join either bloc this time and holds the balance, having won at least eight seats. Mr. Liberman has said he would support only a broad, secular unity government, excluding ultra-Orthodox and right-wing extremist parties.
President Reuven Rivlin, who has the power to appoint a candidate to try to assemble a governing coalition, said he would begin consulting with representatives of all the parties on Sunday. The consultations usually last a couple of days and Mr. Rivlin can take a few more days to make a decision.
The leader of the party with the most votes usually gets the first crack at assembling a government, but it can also go to whoever is thought to have the best chance of forming a coalition with a majority of 61. The appointee then gets 28 days to form a government, though a two-week extension is possible.
Forming a unity government would be like putting together a puzzle with pieces that don’t quite fit. The two main rivals are both on record supporting such a coalition, but on conflicting terms.
Mr. Gantz has repeatedly pledged not to enter a coalition with Likud so long as its leader is facing indictment. Mr. Gantz also said before the election that, like Mr. Liberman, he wanted to form a broad, secular coalition, excluding ultra-Orthodox parties.
But Mr. Netanyahu already met with his former coalition partners from the right-wing and religious camps on Wednesday and vowed that they would stick together in coalition negotiations.
“Benny, this is not the time for disqualifications and boycotts, this is the moment to put our ego aside,” Miri Regev, a Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu loyalist, wrote on Twitter. “This is an undemocratic act on your part.”
Mr. Netanyahu would certainly demand a rotation agreement with Mr. Gantz, to split the four-year term as prime minister between them, as Yitzhak Shamir of Likud and Shimon Peres of the Labor Party did in the 1980s.
Yoaz Hendel, a member of Blue and White who used to work for Mr. Netanyahu, appeared not to rule out Mr. Netanyahu as a coalition partner, at least at this stage.
“In Blue and White, we want a unity government and we have principles about the person who is prime minister,” he said in a radio interview after Mr. Netanyahu’s call on Thursday.
“The prime minister cannot be someone who has been indicted,” he said, adding, “I think several constellations are possible, and no matter what, Benny Gantz must be prime minister first.”