President decries 'this miserable political situation'

‘A time of unprecedented darkness’: Rivlin passes coalition-building buck to MKs

After Gantz and Netanyahu fail to build government, never-before-used electoral law opens last window for any lawmaker to win majority backing — or new elections will be triggered

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin (R) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday handed Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein formal notice that Benny Gantz’s mandate to form a government had ended, after the Blue and White party leader conceded failure in the task a day earlier.

For the first time in Israel’s history, the mandate to form a governing coalition is now in the hands of the Knesset. If 60 lawmakers sign their support for a fellow MK to form a coalition within the next 21 days, that person will be tasked with doing so and get 14 days to swear in a government. If not, the country goes to the polls once again.

“This is a time of unprecedented darkness in the history of the State of Israel,” Rivlin told Edelstein in a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

“This is one of the most important times for soul-searching the State of Israel has known,” he said. “I would like to remind you that this miserable political situation comes after a second round of elections, forced on Israeli citizens after the 21st Knesset decided to dissolve itself.”

Gantz said Wednesday night that he had failed to form a coalition government, handing the mandate back to Rivlin after 28 days. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also failed to cobble together a coalition after he was given the first chance to form a government after the September 17 elections. After having failed to form a coalition following April’s elections, Netanyahu pushed through a bill to dissolve parliament and call new elections in order to prevent Gantz from getting a chance.

Benny Gantz gives a statement in Tel Aviv after giving up his coalition-building bid on November 20, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

“Let there be no illusions,” Rivlin warned in an appeal to Knesset members, “this politics of disruption has to stop. Your political fate is not more important than the old person in a hospital, the children in special education, the victims of violence in the Arab sector, the residents of the south — Jewish, Arab, ultra-Orthodox and secular — who need protection from rocket fire, and the women who need shelter.

“Over these next 21 days, do not be blocs or parties. Each one of you should look to their conscience and answer one question: ‘What is my duty to the State of Israel?'” he said.

Accepting Rivlin’s announcement as the representative of the Knesset, which now holds the keys to the premiership, Speaker Yuli Edelstein said he would do “all I can to help the formation of a wide coalition that will serve the people of Israel.”

Saying that despite the challenges, he believes a solution is possible, Edelstein quoted former prime minister Menachem Begin, who famously said that “elections can be prevented, unity can’t.”

Asking “to speak directly to the citizens, to anyone who cares,” Edelstein urged the public to “turn to your representatives in any way you can and tell them in a clear voice, ‘We do not want elections, we want you to sit down together.'”

Israel’s political system has been at an unprecedented impasse since the April 9 election when it first failed to produce a government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party rally in Tel Aviv on November 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

When coalition talks collapsed on May 30, Netanyahu, fearing that the mandate would go to his rival Gantz, pushed Likud and other parties to vote to dissolve the short-lived 21st Knesset, triggering new elections on September 17.

But that vote, too, produced no clear winner, and after Netanyahu could not assemble a coalition by mid-October, the opportunity went to Gantz.

Rivlin urged both leaders to form a unity government of Blue and White and Likud. He suggested a power-sharing agreement whereby, he indicated, Netanyahu would take a leave of absence if he is indicted in the three corruption cases pending against him. The attorney general is expected to announce charges against Netanyahu in the coming days.

But talks broke down over who would serve as prime minister first, along with Netanyahu’s insistence on negotiating on behalf of the entire bloc of 55 right-wing and religious lawmakers who backed him, and Gantz’s refusal to serve under a prime minister facing criminal charges.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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