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Israel's Benny Gantz handed the chance to form coalition government

Former army chief has no clear path to power but may try to rule with a minority government, analyst tells MEE
Benny Gantz has 28 days to form a government (AFP)

Israel's former army chief of staff turned politician Benny Gantz has been handed the opportunity to form a government on Wednesday evening - but his path to power is a difficult one.

President Reuven Rivlin handed Gantz the mandate in a ceremony at his residence, marking the first time anyone but current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been given the chance since 2009.

"We must behave responsibly towards Israeli citizens and avoid new elections," Gantz said on Wednesday, adding that there would be room for "all elements of Israeli society" in his coalition.

For his part, Rivlin urged all political parties to make "concessions".

"There is no justification for imposing another round of elections, for the third time within a year, on the Israeli public. If a government is to be formed, everyone will pay a price. But if this is not the case, the citizens of Israel will pay the greatest price of all," the Israeli president said.

Following a legislative election last month, Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first try at forming a governing coalition, but on Monday the Likud Party leader said he was unable to do so.

Gantz's chances are little better.

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The September election, called in response to an inconclusive one in April, saw neither Netanyahu's Likud nor Gantz's Blue and White parties in a clear position to form a majority in parliament.

If anything, the chances of Gantz forming a coalition may be even slimmer than his embattled opponent.

Including his allies on the Israeli centre and left, the Blue and White leader can only accrue 44 seats in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

Add on the 13 seats won by the Arab Joint List - the coalition of parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel - who may vote with Gantz but not enter his government, the retired general is still four short of the 61 needed to rule.

Forced together

For a while, it looked as if Netanyahu and Gantz would be forced together.

In the wake of the election, Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman, who prompted the repeat polls by refusing to enter Netanyahu's government, called on the two to come together in a unity government.

Though Netanyahu reacted positively to the suggestion in public, his refusal to entertain rotating the premiership and stepping down temporarily scuppered the plan early on.

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Instead, he attempted to reach a different compromise with Gantz and Lieberman, which proved unsuccessful.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a close Netanyahu ally, said on Tuesday the current prime minister had been “obstructed” in his negotiations.

"Disagreements don't prevent negotiations," he told army radio.

"To the contrary, one comes to negotiations when one begins with disagreements. Therefore, if Benny Gantz offers Netanyahu to sit down with him one-on-one, I'm confident that Netanyahu will sit with him."

But on Twitter, Gantz ally and Blue and White MP Ofer Shelah said Netanyahu had only achieved “four weeks of nothing".

"He passed the time in order to continue as prime minister for a little while longer ... Bibi wants elections. That is obvious," he said, using a common nickname for Netanyahu.

Minority government

Israelis are weary after two foul-tempered elections in quick succession, but a third cannot be ruled out.

Gantz now has 28 days to form a coalition, with the possibility of requesting a two-week extension from Rivlin.

If like Netanyahu he is unable to form a government, the Knesset can then offer a different candidate, who will have two weeks to try and form his or her own coalition.

'Psychologically, if someone is so close to being prime minister, they won’t want to give it up'

- Meron Rapaport, analyst

Were all of these efforts to be unsuccessful, Israel will be forced to hold fresh elections in March; though opinion polls currently point to a near-identical result.

Seasoned political analyst and regular Middle East Eye contributor Meron Rapoport, however, believes Gantz will attempt to form a minority government.

"The Arabs and Lieberman could supply a minority government with the votes it needs to pass legislation," Rapoport told MEE. "But the government would be very weak and won't last."

Rapoport said he believed that faced with the choice of a new election or ruling, however weakly, through a minority government, Gantz would choose the latter.

"Psychologically, if someone is so close to being prime minister, they won't want to give it up," he said.

Looming over the proceedings are the corruption charges Netanyahu faces.

The Israeli attorney-general is expected to announce whether he is formally charging the prime minister in early December.

Blue and White has expressed a desire to sit in a government with Likud as long as Netanyahu steps down, but the party has so far stayed loyal and refused to move against the prime minister.

"If the attorney-general charges Netanyahu, there may be a chance for people in Likud to get rid of him," Rapoport said. "But before that, there is no chance."