Israel’s president says he has given opposition leader Benny Gantz the first opportunity to form a new government, following an inconclusive national election earlier this month.
Reuven Rivlin’s office announced the president’s decision late on Sunday after he consulted with leaders of all of the parties elected to parliament.
The president had summoned prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his challenger Mr Gantz to an emergency meeting, ahead of his decision about who should lead Israel’s next government.
It was hoped the meeting would break the deadlock that has paralysed the political system for the past year and could threaten the country’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
The decision raises questions about Mr Netanyahu’s political future.
His Likud emerged as the largest party in the March 2 election, Israel’s third in under a year.
But with his smaller religious and nationalist allies, he received the support of only 58 politicians during Sunday’s consultations, leaving Likud three seats short of the required majority in parliament.
Mr Gantz’s Blue and White party received the support of parties representing 61 seats, a slim majority.
But those parties are also divided, and it is not clear whether Mr Gantz will succeed in putting together a coalition.
He will now have a month to cobble together a governing coalition.
Mr Netanyahu, in his caretaker role, had invited Mr Gantz to join him in an emergency government.
Mr Gantz had left the door open to such an arrangement, but also dismissed the offers as insincere.
Facing a difficult decision, Mr Rivlin had earlier implored for a power-sharing unity deal.
He said: “Anyone who has watched the news in recent days understands that this is a time of trial, and that these are not regular consultations.
“We must now deal with forming a government as soon as possible … at this complex time.”
Over the past week, the coronavirus outbreak has overshadowed the country’s precarious political standoff — which comes as Mr Netanyahu prepares to go on trial for corruption charges.
Mr Netanyahu got an important reprieve on Sunday when the Jerusalem court handling the case postponed his trial for two months because of restrictions connected to the coronavirus outbreak.
Mr Netanyahu was scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday to face charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in connection to a series of scandals.
But following the emergency health measures the government enacted restricting the gathering of people in public places, the court announced that it was pushing back the hearing until May 24.
Much of the country ground to a standstill on Sunday, with schools, shopping centres and places of entertainment shut down.
Employees were encouraged to work from home and strict restrictions have been placed on personal interactions.
The virus has spread to more than 100 countries, infected more than 150,000 people worldwide and killed more than 5,700.
In Israel, some 200 people have been infected with no casualties yet, as severe measures seem to have proven effective so far.