Israeli president asks parliament to choose prime minister

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FILE - In this March. 1, 2020 file photo, people walk next to election campaign billboards showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Benny Gantz, left, in Bnei Brak, Israel. Israels president on Sunday, April 12, 2020, turned down a request from Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz for a two-week extension to form a new coalition government. The announcement means that Gantz and Netanyahu have a midnight deadline on Monday night to reach a power-sharing deal. If they fail, the country could be forced into a fourth consecutive election in just over a year. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

JERUSALEM – Israel’s president Thursday asked the Knesset to choose a new prime minister, giving parliament three weeks to agree upon a leader or plunge the country into an unprecedented fourth consecutive election in just over a year.

President Reuven Rivlin made the move after his prime minister-designate, former military chief Benny Gantz, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to reach a power-sharing deal by a midnight deadline.

The bitter rivals had pledged to form an “emergency” government to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis, which has ravaged the economy and sent unemployment to record highs. But after weeks of talks, including a final 48-hour extension granted by Rivlin, the president said he had lost confidence in their chances of striking a deal.

“I am informing you that I do not see the possibility of forming a government and I entrust the formation of a government to the Knesset,” he wrote in a letter to parliament. “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 and to prevent a fourth round of elections.”

The decision by the president, a figurehead position that oversees post-election coalition talks, does not rule out a deal between Netanyahu and Gantz. After the deadline passed, Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White said they would continue their negotiations Thursday. Netanyahu also said he had invited Gantz to another meeting in the evening.

They now have a final three-week deadline to wrap up a deal. Otherwise, the Knesset would dissolve and trigger another election.

But Netanyahu appears to have gained some leverage. With Gantz no longer holding the presidential “mandate” to put together a coalition, Netanyahu could search for other options.

A total of 59 lawmakers have endorsed Netanyahu, leaving him just shy of a majority in the 120-seat parliament. While continuing to speak to Gantz, he may also try to lure two lawmakers from his opposition in hopes of putting together a narrow government.