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Benny Gantz denied more time to form a government in Israel

Parliament speaker Gantz was given the mandate following Israel's inconclusive 2 March election
Leader of Israel's Blue and White electoral alliance Benny Gantz delivers a statement in the central Israeli city of Ramat Gan (AFP)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has denied Benny Gantz more time to attempt to form a government, meaning the gauntlet could now be thrown down to incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Parliamentary speaker Gantz was given the mandate to form a government four weeks ago following Israel's 2 March election, the country's third inconclusive vote in a year.

But overcoming the deep divisions within the anti-Netanyahu camp eventually proved too difficult for the former military chief.

The pro-Netanyahu bloc, which includes the veteran premier's right-wing Likud and several religious parties, also remained short of a majority after last month's vote.

Gantz had pledged to use his position as speaker - a position he was elected to in a surprise move last month -  to seek an emergency unity alliance with Netanyahu in order to tackle the growing coronavirus pandemic.

While Gantz's mandate to form a government technically runs until the end of Monday, he was no longer actively engaged in talks to forge a coalition led by him as prime minister. 

Instead, he was widely believed to be pursuing a deal that would see Netanyahu remain as premier for a defined period, and possibly then handing power to Gantz. 

Despite reports of progress from the two sides - and from Israeli media - no deal has been agreed.

Late Saturday, Gantz asked Rivlin for an extension of his mandate. 

In response, Rivlin told Gantz "that in the current circumstances no extension would be possible," a statement from the president's office said.

"The president made his decision after also speaking to...Netanyahu, who did not confirm in their conversation that the parties are close to signing an agreement that would lead to a unity government," the statement said.

Unity talks 'ongoing'

If no unity agreement is reached by the end of Monday, Rivlin said he will ask the Knesset to nominate a candidate to become prime minister.

The Netanyahu bloc currently holds 59 of the Knesset's 120 seats. 

It is therefore possible, but not certain, that parliament will give the premier a 14-day window to form a government.  

Blue and White, the centrist alliance led by Gantz, said in a statement that "the attempts by the negotiating teams to arrive at a unity government are still ongoing".

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Likud said it too remained open to forming a unity government.

But it also urged Rivlin to give Netanyahu a full four weeks to form a coalition.  

Likud stressed that the president gave both Netanyahu and Gantz a chance to build a government following the inconclusive votes in September and should do so again. 

But with Israel's confirmed Covid-19 caseload nearing 11,000, there remain widespread calls from across the political spectrum for a unity alliance, even for a short term. 

Netanyahu, in office since 2009, is Israel's longest-serving premier and the first to be indicted while in office.

The premier denies the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust filed against him in January. 

Netanyahu critics have said the premier will stop at nothing to make the indictments disappear, including pushing for a fourth election, hoping to finally secure the parliamentary majority needed to grant him immunity from prosecution.