Israel's Netanyahu fails to form new coalition government, gives up mandate

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave up his effort to form a new government Monday after failing to secure a majority coalition, creating an opportunity for centrist rival Benny Gantz to replace Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

Country could face 3rd election this year if centrist rival fails to secure majority

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is abandoning efforts to form a coalition government, paving the way for one of his rivals to form a new government. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave up his effort to form a new government Monday after failing to secure a majority coalition, creating an opportunity for centrist rival Benny Gantz to replace Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

It's a step that could push the country into new political uncertainty.

Facing a Wednesday deadline, Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, said he had been unable to form a government following an election in September, and was returning the mandate back to Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin.

While Netanyahu remains at the helm of his Likud party, his announcement marked the second time this year that he has been unable to form a government.

With Israel's attorney general set to decide in the coming weeks on whether to indict Netanyahu in a series of corruption cases, the longtime Israeli leader could come under heavy pressure to step aside. One party rival, Gideon Saar, has already indicated he would challenge Netanyahu if Likud holds a primary.

Netanyahu fell short of securing a 61-seat parliamentary majority in last month's election. But Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first opportunity to form a government because he had more support — 55 lawmakers — than Gantz, who was supported by 54.

'I made every effort'

Netanyahu had hoped to form a broad "unity" government with Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White party. But Netanyahu insisted that his coalition include his traditional allies, a collection of hardline and religious parties, drawing accusations from Gantz that he was not negotiating in good faith.

"In the past weeks, I made every effort to bring Benny Gantz to the negotiating table, every effort to establish a broad national government, every effort to avoid another election," Netanyahu said.

For Netanyahu, who marked his 70th birthday on Monday, it was another painful setback. In an earlier election in April, Netanyahu also failed to win a parliamentary majority and was forced to call the indecisive Sept. 17 election. Now, for the first time since Netanyahu was elected in early 2009, the country faces the possibility of choosing a different leader.

The president said he now intends to task Gantz with the job of putting together a new government.

However, Gantz also appears to have no clear path to a majority, and should he come up short, it would almost certainly lead to another general election — Israel's third since April.

Blue and White party Leader Benny Gantz looks on during his party faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, on Oct. 3. Israel's president is tasking Gantz with the job of forming a new government. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Gantz's Blue and White party said in a statement it was "determined to form a liberal unity government."

"Now is the time of action," the party said. 

Netanyahu, who has been in power for the past decade and 13 years in total, has seen his political strength wane as he faces a looming indictment on corruption allegations that he denies.

Gantz has vowed to unify the country and restore national institutions after Netanyahu's decade-long rule, which has deepened Israel's religious and political divides and been roiled by corruption allegations.

Gantz aims to be fresh alternative

In contrast to Netanyahu, whose political career spans three decades, the 60-year-old Gantz is a newcomer who only burst onto the scene over the last year. The towering former general's party is a newly formed centrist coalition that includes the popular secular politician Yair Lapid as well as other former senior military officers and some of Netanyahu's fiercest critics.

At times, Gantz has criticized Netanyahu's handling of security issues, particularly in the Gaza Strip, and has touted his time as army chief, when he oversaw a devastating 2014 war in Gaza. He also has hinted at reviving the peace process with the Palestinians. But Gantz has been vague, apparently wary of alienating potential coalition partners, and focused most of his efforts on portraying himself as a fresh alternative to Netanyahu.

There is no guarantee, however, that Gantz will succeed.

He has expressed willingness to form a partnership with Likud, but not if Netanyahu continues to lead while he faces such serious legal problems. For the time being, Likud has remained steadfastly behind its leader.

Without Likud, Gantz will have a hard time securing a majority in Parliament. The opposition to Netanyahu includes a diverse group of parties, ranging from Arab parties to the secular ultranationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, that are unlikely to sit together in partnership.

If Gantz fails during his 28-day window, a majority of lawmakers could try to endorse a third candidate, something that has never happened before. And if that fails, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a third election in under a year.

With files from The Associated Press