Israel’s president has asked the Knesset to choose a new prime minister, giving the parliament three weeks to agree upon a leader or plunge the country into an unprecedented fourth consecutive election in just over a year.
President Reuven Rivlin made the move after his prime minister-designate, former military chief Benny Gantz, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to reach a power-sharing deal by a midnight deadline.
Although the deadline passed, Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White party said they would continue their negotiations toward an “emergency” unity government meant to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis.
The sides officially have three weeks to wrap up a deal. Otherwise, the Knesset would dissolve and trigger another election.
President Reuven Rivlin, who is overseeing the talks, said on Monday that progress justified his decision to grant Gantz a two-day extension to hash out a deal with Netanyahu.
But Gantz’s mandate expired at midnight on Wednesday after a last-minute attempt by the two leaders’ envoys to clinch a deal. That complicates plans for economic recovery once the coronavirus outbreak is brought under control, and the country’s stringent lockdown is eased.
Netanyahu and Gantz released a joint statement early on Thursday saying they would continue negotiations later in the day. Talks technically can continue until parliament is formally dissolved.
Gantz had previously said he would not serve in a government led by Netanyahu, who is facing indictment on corruption charges but denies any wrongdoing. The trial is due to begin next month.
But the enormity of the coronavirus crisis prompted Gantz to break his campaign promise and to consider a deal, a move that angered many of his anti-Netanyahu supporters.
The outcome appeared to weaken Gantz while strengthening Netanyahu, whose caretaker government is overseeing the country’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
With Gantz also no longer holding the presidential “mandate” to put together a coalition, Netanyahu could search for other options.
A total of 59 lawmakers have endorsed Netanyahu, leaving him just shy of a majority in the 120-seat parliament. While continuing to speak to Gantz, he may also try to lure two lawmakers from his opposition in hopes of putting together a narrow government.
A Monday poll from Israel’s Channel 12 news said if an election were held now, Netanyahu’s Likud party would see a four-seat boost to 40 in the 120-member Knesset, while Gantz’s weakened Blue and White alliance would win only 19.
The poll also found about 64 percent of citizens were satisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic.
Israel has reported more than 12,500 COVID-19 cases and at least 130 deaths. Restrictions have confined most Israelis to their homes, forcing businesses to close, and sending unemployment past 25 percent.