Israel's president on Sunday said he has decided to give opposition leader Benny Gantz the first opportunity to form a new government, following an inconclusive national election this month.
President Reuven Rivlin's office announced his decision late Sunday after consulting with leaders of all of the parties elected to parliament.
The decision raises questions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political future as he leads the country's battle against the coronavirus threat and prepares to go on trial for 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 Likud 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.
Rivlin said he would formally designate Gantz with the task on Monday. Once formally tapped, Gantz will now have a month to cobble together a governing coalition.
Given the possibility of continued deadlock, Rivlin summoned both Netanyahu and Gantz to an emergency meeting late Sunday.
Rivlin had earlier suggested the two men form a power-sharing unity government to lead the country through its many crises. If the two rivals cannot reach a unity deal, the country could find itself in a fourth consecutive election campaign.
"Anyone who has watched the news in recent days understands that this is a time of trial, and that these are not regular consultations," he said. "We must now deal with forming a government as soon as possible ... at this complex time."
Israel's president hold a largely ceremonial role, but is responsible for designating the candidate he thinks has the best chance of being able to form a government by securing a parliamentary majority.
That task has been complicated by the results of the March 2 election. Netanyahu's Likud party emerged as the largest single party, but short of a 61-seat parliamentary majority with its allies of smaller religious and nationalist parties.
While Gantz is backed by a slim majority, the opposition is deeply fragmented — with the predominantly Arab Joint List and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu among them — giving Gantz slim odds of being able to form a government.
Yisrael Beitenu's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, and two members of Gantz's own Blue and White party have said they would oppose a government that relies on support from the Joint List. Lieberman told the president that he supports Gantz, but also called for the formation of an "emergency" unity government to deal with the coronavirus threat.
Netanyahu, in his caretaker role, has invited Gantz to join him in an emergency government. Gantz has left the door open to such an arrangement, but also dismissed the offers as insincere.
Over the past week, the coronavirus scare has overshadowed the country's precarious political standoff — which comes as Netanyahu prepares to go on trial for corruption charges.
Netanyahu got an important reprieve on Sunday when the Jerusalem court handling the case postponed his trial for two months because of restrictions connected to the coronavirus pandemic.
Netanyahu was scheduled to appear in court Tuesday to face charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in connection to a series of scandals. But following the emergency health measures the government enacted restricting the gathering of people in public places, the court announced that it was pushing back the hearing until May 24.
Netanyahu is accused of receiving expensive gifts from wealthy friends and offering to exchange favors with powerful media moguls. The long-ruling Israeli leader denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a media-orchestrated witch hunt.
Much of the country ground to a standstill Sunday, with schools, malls and places of entertainment shut down. Employees were encouraged to work from home and strict restrictions have been placed on personal interactions.
The virus has spread to more than 100 countries, infected more than 150,000 people worldwide and killed more than 5,700. In Israel, some 200 people have been infected with no casualties yet, as severe measures seem to have proven effective so far.
The coronavirus crisis has raised calls for an emergency unity government. Netanyahu formally extended an offer Sunday to Gantz to join a government aimed at at halting the spread of the virus, suggesting two frameworks, including one that would see an alternating leadership between them over the course of four years.
Gantz's centrist Blue and White party seems to consider the outreach yet another ruse after what has been an extremely acrimonious campaign that included unfounded smears against Gantz.