Benjamin Netanyahu has conceded that he cannot form a new Israeli government and handed his political rival Benny Gantz the opportunity to do so.
The admission is a further sign of Netanyahu’s waning influence, but Gantz is highly unlikely to succeed where the 70-year old incumbent prime minister has failed.
If, as expected, Gantz is unable to muster enough Knesset seats to command a majority, then Israelis will be sent back to the polls for the third time in a year.
In a video statement published on Monday evening, Netanyahu said he had tried and failed to form a national unity government with Gantz’s Blue and White party, which won 33 seats in September’s election. Netanyahu’s Likud won 32.
Despite having won fewer seats, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin offered Netanyahu the mandate to form a coalition last month, because he was more able than Gantz to do so, based on declared support. This week, Netanyahu returned that mandate.
Rivlin, whose role is politically neutral, has been urged by some to help facilitate a unity government. He will now pass the mandate to Gantz, who will have 28 days to try to muster enough support to rule.
Blaming his rival for the failure, Netanyahu said: “During the past few weeks, I made every effort to bring Benny Gantz to the negotiating table, every effort to establish a broad national unity government, every effort to prevent another election. To my regret, time after time, he declined. He simply refused.”
Yet both men established onerous pre-conditions for the talks: Netanyahu refused to drop his Orthodox religious and ethno-nationalist right-wing partners from any future government, while Gantz said he could not share power with a prime minister facing a pending corruption trial.
Netanyahu has been desperate to form a government in order to pass legislation granting him immunity from prosecution, but after he was dropped by his former ally Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing secularist, the Knesset numbers have not added up.
Although Gantz only needs another 28 seats to form a 61-seat majority, his chances of finding them are slim, given the collapse in support for left-wing parties and the refusal of many right-wing parties to sit in coalition alongside the country’s 13-seat Arab bloc.
Despite the odds, Gantz’s party this week sounded upbeat, saying it was “determined to form the liberal unity government, led by Benny Gantz, that the people of Israel voted for a month ago”.