Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Picture: AFP/ MENAHEM KAHANA
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Picture: AFP/ MENAHEM KAHANA

Jerusalem — Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin asked parliament on Thursday to find a new prime minister, as he sought to avoid another election after incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz both failed to form a government.

“Starting today and for 21 days the decision of who to task with forming the government is in the hands of the members of the Knesset [parliament]," Rivlin said, a day after Gantz admitted he could not build a coalition government.

Parliament has until December 11 to find a candidate who can command the support of the majority of the 120 MPs or a new general election will be called for early 2020. It would be the third such poll within 12 months.

Rivlin, who has been urging a compromise to break the political deadlock, met Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and handed over the mandate.

It was the first time in Israeli history the president had been forced to ask parliament to find a government.

“The disruptive politics must end,” Rivlin said, addressing MPs from all parties.

He reminded them they have a responsibility to keep the country running and said: “Your political fate is not more important than the fate of an old lady in a hospital.”

‘Nobody wants another election’

Polls in September left Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White coalition near neck and neck.

Netanyahu was first given four weeks to build a governing coalition with smaller parties, but failed. Gantz admitting defeat late on Wednesday after a similar period.

“Nobody wants another election,” Edelstein said.

“I will do everything so that in the next three weeks we will succeed in forming a broad coalition and a strong government that will go back to work for the citizens of Israel.”

Despite having failed in previous attempts, Netanyahu and Gantz could be nominated in the next three weeks.

All sides say they oppose such new elections, which are unpopular with the Israeli public, but have traded blame over the faltering talks.

Netanyahu, who has been premier since 2009 but is fighting corruption allegations, remains in power in an interim capacity.

The attorney-general could announce a decision on Netanyahu’s graft cases in coming weeks.

Unity government

Former army general Gantz and Netanyahu remain the most likely candidates to take over if new elections are avoided.

The two men had been discussing forming a unity government alongside former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Talks broke down late on Tuesday, with Gantz and Netanyahu arguing over who should go first if they were to rotate the premiership.

Both have said they are open to continuing dialogue in the next three weeks.

Addressing Gantz on Thursday morning, Netanyahu urged him to come to “personal, immediate negotiations, you and I, without preconditions. We can get over the differences. The state is important to all of us.”

Gantz said on Wednesday he was available in the next three weeks for “direct, substantive and fast negotiations in order to establish a government that will take Israel out from the paralysis”.

But Israeli media said talks were deadlocked and the parties were already preparing their campaigns for new elections.

“The 21 days left to try and spare the country from elections will most likely be filled with spin whose goal will be, for each party, to maintain its base of support, or to crush [the other party’s]," said Shimon Shiffer, columnist for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

The most important player in coming weeks may not be a politician at all but the top justice official.

Attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit is due to decide in coming weeks whether to charge Netanyahu on a series of accusations of graft.

They range from receiving gifts worth thousands of dollars to a deal to change regulatory frameworks in favour of a media group in exchange for favourable coverage. Netanyahu denies all the charges.

An indictment might permanently damage Netanyahu’s political career, whereas a reprieve could give him a new lease of life.

Israeli media suggested Mandelblit could announce his decision in  coming days, but there was no official confirmation.

“The political timetable is likely to be decided based on the legal developments,” Yediot said.

AFP