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Israel's Benny Gantz fails to form coalition government

Ex-Israeli army chief is unable to cobble together majority coalition ahead of midnight deadline
Gantz had until midnight Jerusalem time on Wednesday to form coalition (Reuters)

Israel's Benny Gantz said he is unable to form a majority government, an announcement that came after weeks of unsuccessful negotiations and moved the country closer to a third election in less than a year.

The ex-army chief was tasked with forming a coalition government when his rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to do so last month.

Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, had until midnight Jerusalem time on Wednesday to form a coalition.

He informed Israeli President Reuven Rivlin only hours before that deadline that he was unable to cobble together a majority government.

"In the past 28 days no stone was left unturned while we tried to form a government that would bring Israel a leadership of dignity, morals and values, a leadership that has been forgotten," said Gantz, as reported by Israel's daily Haaretz.

This is the first time in Israel's history that two candidates have failed to form a coalition, the newspaper said.

Members of the country's parliament now have 21 days to decide which political leader should be given the mandate to form a government.

If the parliamentarians cannot agree on a new prime minister, the country would head to an unprecedented third election in the span of a year.

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According to Haaretz, Gantz told Rivlin on Wednesday that he was committed to helping form a ruling coalition in the period before a new election must be called.

Earlier on Wednesday, former Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman said his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party would not join a coalition headed by Gantz - a move that threw the Blue and White leader's prospects of forming a government into doubt.

Lieberman's party won eight seats in the vote on 17 September, finishing in fourth behind Netanyahu's Likud, Gantz's Blue and White alliance and the Arab Joint List, a coalition of parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Gantz was the first person in a decade other than Netanyahu to be tasked with forming an Israeli government.

Over the past month, he attempted to form a coalition with Netanyahu in order to get out of political gridlock,  meeting with his rival late on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of an alliance.

Still, the pair disagreed on an array of issues, including who would lead the next government.

Before meeting with Gantz on Tuesday, Netanyahu had called for a "broad unity government" that would annex the Jordan Valley, an area that covers about one-third of the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

Without Netanyahu's Likud and its allies, Gantz needed the backing of both Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint List to form a coalition.

The Likud Party leader claimed victory in the first parliamentary election on 9 April, but was unable to pull together a government, which triggered the most recent vote in September.

Netanyahu quickly responded to Gantz's announcement on Wednesday, saying he is "willing to immediately enter a dialogue" to "establish a unity government", Haaretz reported.

Gantz, Netanyahu trade barbs

But the two rivals traded barbs, with Gantz accusing the Israeli premier of putting his own political interests ahead of the country.

"The [right-wing] bloc stood firm, insisting to only see the best interest of one person, before that of the patients lying in hospital corridors," Gantz said, as reported by Haaretz.

"No secular, Arab or religious party is above the people's best interest. No leader has a right to tell the people, 'my personal interest takes precedence over the people's interest,'" he added.

Netanyahu shot back, calling Gantz's remarks "absurd".

"I'm willing to immediately enter a dialogue with you, without pre-conditions, in order to establish a unity government. If we'll go together, we'll succeed," said Netanyahu, addressing his rival.

'If we are dragged to new elections it will be because of a lack of leadership'

- Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu

During the negotiations, Rivlin proposed an agreement that would see a rotation of leadership between Netanyahu and Gantz, Israeli media reported.

Under that proposal, the Likud leader would get the premiership first, but would take a leave of absence if he received an indictment on corruption charges.

The plan did not come together, with both sides blaming each other.

For his part, Lieberman blamed both Netanyahu and Gantz for failing to come to an agreement and reiterated his opposition to a Netanyahu-led government with ultra-Orthodox parties.

Lieberman also said he wouldn't back a government headed by Gantz that would include the Joint List, which he described as a "fifth column".

"If we are dragged to new elections it will be because of a lack of leadership," said Lieberman, as reported by AFP.

Ahmed Tibi, a senior politician representing Israel's Palestinian citizens, tweeted on Wednesday that Lieberman's remarks embodied "incitement" and "racism and anti-Semitism".