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WASHINGTON - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday he has failed to form a new government following last month's inconclusive parliamentary election, making way for centrist rival Benny Gantz to try to put together a majority coalition of lawmakers and become the country's new leader.
Netanyahu, already the Jewish state's longest serving premier, was trying for a fifth term as prime minister. But Netanyahu, head of the conservative Likud party, told Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, that he was unable to form a 61-seat majority in the Knesset by joining in a unity government with Gantz's centrist Blue and White party.
Rivlin said he now would give Gantz, a former Israeli defense chief, 28 days to try to form a government, although he too faces daunting odds. By law, if Gantz cannot form a government in 28 days, any member of parliament can try to form a government in the next 21 days after that.
But if that also fails, Israel would be forced to hold its third parliamentary election since April.
Gantz's party won 33 seats in the September election and Netanyahu's Likud 32, both far from a majority and forcing each of them to try to collect support from parties with smaller representation in the newly elected parliament.
Netanyahu relied on Orthodox Jewish and far-right parties, which pushed him close to a majority. Gantz has relied on support from the Arab alliance Joint List and other more liberal Israeli parties, which also could push him close to a majority.
The key once again could be the Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, who has called for universal conscription in the Israeli military, a position opposed by Jewish-centric parties, and other sectarian policies. Lieberman has not endorsed anyone for prime minister, but his party holds eight seats in the Knesset that could prove decisive.
Netanyahu accused Gantz and his potential coalition partners of "only talking about unity. In effect, they're doing the exact opposite, encouraging sectarianism" by refusing to join a government with ultra-Orthodox parties.
Netanyahu said he would oppose any government formed by Gantz that included the Arab parliamentarians, who Netanyahu said "encourage terror and oppose Israel's existence. How can a minority government led by Gantz and supported by these (lawmakers) fight terror?"
But Blue and White said in a statement that "the time of spin is over, and it is now time for action. Blue and White is determined to form the liberal unity government, led by Benny Gantz, that the people of Israel voted for a month ago."