Israeli politician Benny Gantz has been given the chance to form a government after incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conceded earlier this week that he was unable to cobble together a coalition.
Former army chief Gantz, who leads the 33-seat Blue and White party together with former finance minister Yair Lapid, immediately offered talks with Netanyahu’s 32-seat Likud party, which accepted.
Together the two parties would have a majority in the 120-seat Knesset (Israeli parliament), enough to form a “national unity government”.
Netanyahu, who turned 70 last week, has led the country for the last ten years, following an earlier stint as PM from 1996-99, but could not persuade Gantz and Lapid to enter into a coalition on his terms after September’s election.
Both men set pre-conditions for the talks: Netanyahu refused to drop his Orthodox and religious-nationalist right-wing allies from any future government, while Gantz said he could not share power with a PM who was facing a pending corruption trial.
Netanyahu returned the mandate to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday night, blaming his rival for the negotiations’ failure. On Tuesday, Rivlin handed the mandate to Gantz.
Commentators said the sight of Rivlin anointing Gantz prime minister in waiting was a further sign of Netanyahu’s waning influence, and noted a change in body language between the president and the new man.
“His dynamics with Rivlin were a study in contrast compared to Netanyahu,” said Ha’aretz journalist Chemi Shalev. “Instead of hiding his hostility, Rivlin had to squash his obvious satisfaction.”
However, the parliamentary arithmetic still means that Gantz is unlikely to succeed where Netanyahu failed. If he cannot muster at least 61 seats in the next 28 days, Israelis will be sent back to the polls for the third time in a year.
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.
Rivlin, whose role is politically neutral, said on Wednesday that he had “proposed an outline to pave a path for Likud and Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) to form a unity government,” adding both parties not to “boycott entire sectors of Israeli society”.
Netanyahu said he “made every effort to bring [Gantz] to the negotiating table, every effort to establish a broad national unity government, every effort to prevent another election,” adding: “To my regret, time after time, he declined. He simply refused.”
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.
Gantz only needs another 28 seats to form a 61-seat centre-left majority, but there has been a huge drop in support for left-wing parties in recent years, and right-wing parties refuse to sit in coalition alongside the country’s 13-seat Arab bloc.
Addressing Netanyahu directly, Gantz said: “We’ve known each other for many years and I see you as an Israeli patriot. Together with you and the good people in Likud, we have the responsibility to conduct a respectful, ethical conversation for the sake of all those who wish to form a government in Israel.”