JERUSALEM — The Israeli president on Thursday handed the task of forming a government to Parliament, starting a 21-day countdown that could lead to new elections, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz, missed another midnight deadline to reach a power-sharing agreement.
The step, which was mainly technical, on its own does little to find a way through Israel’s yearlong political impasse. Neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Mr. Gantz can currently muster a majority without joining forces, and their parties issued a joint statement on Thursday saying that negotiations for a unity government would continue.
But the step taken by the president, Reuven Rivlin, set a timer: By law, lawmakers have 21 days to come up with a viable government, whether a unity coalition or some other configuration. Failing that, Parliament will automatically disperse on May 7 and, for the fourth time in little over a year, send Israelis back to the ballot box.
The last election, on March 2, produced no clear winner. Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and leader of the conservative Likud party, has beseeched Mr. Gantz, a former army chief who is leader of the centrist Blue and White party, to join him in a national emergency government to contend with the coronavirus crisis.
Citing the common good, Mr. Gantz entered into talks last month, upending his repeated election promises not to sit in a government with a prime minister under indictment. Mr. Netanyahu is facing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Mr. Netanyahu proposed sharing the job of prime minister, with Mr. Netanyahu holding it for the first 18 months and Mr. Gantz taking over for the next 18.
But the unity talks got stuck, according to Blue and White officials, because Mr. Netanyahu sought guarantees to ensure that he could remain in office despite his legal troubles. His team’s proposals include circumventing or overriding any future Supreme Court rulings that bar him from forming a government or, later on, from serving as a deputy to Mr. Gantz, while under indictment.
Despite saying that he is relatively flexible on other issues, Mr. Gantz has pledged to uphold Israel’s democratic institutions and the rule of law. Mr. Netanyahu’s advisers say that they are trying to find a deal that will work and don’t want to risk being shot down by what they view as an overly activist court. But critics have questioned Mr. Netanyahu’s intentions all along.
“Now it is going to come down to a matter of trust,” Ben Caspit, a political columnist, wrote in the newspaper Maariv on Thursday. “Are the problems that were found by Netanyahu’s consultants real, and is their only goal to save the deal before it falls apart? Or is this for the umpteenth time yet another typical Netanyahu gambit that is designed to reshuffle the deck at the very last moment? There are signs pointing in both directions.”
Mr. Gantz was given first crack at forming a government after he and the other anti-Netanyahu forces emerged from the March 2 election in a slightly better position than Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious alliance.
Now that the mandate has passed to Parliament, Mr. Netanyahu may try to lure a couple of defectors from across the lines to make up his own narrow government. Analysts also suggested that a couple of recent flattering opinion polls may have encouraged him to take his chances in a fourth election.
Mr. Gantz has fewer options. His decision to enter into talks with Mr. Netanyahu led to a bitter breakup of his party and dealt a blow to his credibility.
There is still talk among the opposition of advancing legislation blocking Mr. Netanyahu from serving another term. But time is short, and as long as unity talks are in play, Mr. Gantz, who is currently the Parliament speaker, may stall that initiative.
Moshe Yaalon — who was a Likud defense minister under Mr. Netanyahu, later joined the Blue and White alliance and has now also split from that — exhorted Mr. Gantz late Wednesday to “step back from the abyss” and not give in to Mr. Netanyahu’s demands to bypass the Supreme Court.
On Twitter on Thursday, Mr. Yaalon accused Mr. Netanyahu of having taken Likud and the country hostage, “leading to three elections, and now maybe a fourth.”