President Reuven Rivlin informed Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz on Thursday morning that his mandate to form a government had ended, after the Blue and White party leader failed to present a government to the parliament by Wednesday night’s midnight deadline.
Rivlin announced earlier this week he would not hand the mandate to Gantz’s rival, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, but would trigger the start of the 21-day period during which the entire Knesset as a whole may select a candidate to form a government.
Passing the mandate to the Knesset gives Netanyahu and Gantz three more weeks to seal a deal, or theoretically opens the door to other coalition possibilities.
Under Israel’s Basic Law: The Government, if the Knesset fails to agree on a candidate in the allotted three weeks, it is automatically dissolved and new elections are called. If a candidate does secure 61 votes, that person has 14 additional days to form a government before an election must be called.
Rivlin chose not to give Netanyahu another 28 days in which to attempt to negotiate a government himself, as he could have done under law. The move was widely seen as intended to force Netanyahu and Gantz to stop dithering and seal a unity deal quickly amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In a letter Thursday to Likud minister Yariv Levin and Israel Katz, who had complained about Rivlin’s leapfrogging of Netanyahu, President’s House director Harel Tuvi explained the president had concluded that Netanyahu has no clear path to a majority in the current Knesset.
“Given his assessment that none of the candidates have the support of a majority of the MKs at this stage, the president sees no possibility [for any candidate] to form a government, and therefore is passing the mandate to the Knesset,” Tuvi wrote.
The decision Thursday marks only the second time in Israel’s history that the mandate to form a governing coalition was handed to the Knesset. The first time was after the September 2019 race.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz have reportedly expressed a willingness to go to a fourth election, even as the nation remains under lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Recent surveys have shown Netanyahu’s Likud rising in the polls, though calling a new national vote during a crisis is seen as risky, with public mood liable to change in the months leading up to an election that would likely be held in August.
Sources close to Gantz told The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site Zman Israel on Thursday that the Blue and White leader also believed the political center would benefit from a new vote.
The sources said Gantz’s party and the Yesh Atid-Telem faction could win more seats in a fourth election if they run separately, rather than together as a joint slate as they have done in the previous three elections.
“If we go to an election split, without a Yesh Atid, we might bring more seats. Everyone will know why there is no unity [government]– just because of Netanyahu,” the sources told Zman Israel.
In his Thursday announcement Rivlin noted the repeated failures of both Gantz and Netanyahu to form a government across three elections, and the current situation in which “neither of the candidates has the support of a majority of Knesset members in a way that allows them to secure the confidence of the Knesset and form a government, including in the form of a national unity government.”
He said he hoped the Knesset would be able to find a path forward without triggering yet another vote.
“We are in a third consecutive election campaign this year, without any elected official able to form a government that would have the confidence of the Knesset. As president, it is my duty according to Basic Law: The Government… to act in a way that [ensures] a government will be formed in Israel,” he wrote.
“I hope that the Knesset members will be able to form a majority in such a way that a government can be formed as soon as possible, to prevent a fourth round of elections.”
Negotiating teams for Gantz and Netanyahu continued their talks on a unity government late into Wednesday night, and were set to resume talks Thursday or Friday.