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Netanyahu rival Gantz chosen to form new Israeli government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech from his Jerusalem office on Saturday, March 14, 2020, saying Israel's restaurants and places of entertainment will be closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. He also encouraged people not to go to their workplaces unless absolutely necessary. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech from his Jerusalem office on Saturday, March 14, 2020, saying Israel's restaurants and places of entertainment will be closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. He also encouraged people not to go to their workplaces unless absolutely necessary. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)

JERUSALEM – Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz will be given the first opportunity to form a new government after an inconclusive national election this month, the country’s president said Sunday, raising questions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future.

The decision by President Reuven Rivlin was announced by his office after he consulted with leaders of all of the parties elected to parliament. He will formally designate Gantz with the task on Monday and give him a month to cobble together a governing coalition.

The political wrangling comes at a sensitive time. Netanyahu has been leading the country as it confronts a growing coronavirus threat, with over 200 cases diagnosed and the number quickly rising. Netanyahu also faces serious legal troubles as he prepares to go on trial to face corruption charges.

Netanyahu's 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 lawmakers during Sunday's consultations, leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority in parliament.

Gantz's Blue and White received the support of parties representing 61 seats, a slim majority. However, those parties are also divided, and it is not clear whether Gantz will succeed in putting together a coalition. One lawmaker refused to endorse either side.

Given the likelihood of continued deadlock, Rivlin late Sunday summoned both Netanyahu and Gantz to an emergency meeting, where the men pledged to explore a unity government.

In a joint statement, both parties thanked Rivlin and said their leaders “agreed for the respective negotiation teams to meet soon.”

Rivlin had earlier called for a power-sharing unity government to lead the country through its many crises. Israel has gone through three inconclusive elections in the past year, leaving it with a caretaker government as it confronts a host of challenges, including the coronavirus battle. If the two rivals cannot reach a unity deal, the country could find itself in a fourth consecutive election campaign.