Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been chosen to try to form Israel’s next government, the Israeli president’s office announced Wednesday, offering the longtime leader a potential political lifeline even as he faces a looming indictment for corruption.
President Reuven Rivlin chose Mr. Netanyahu of the conservative Likud party over his chief opponent, Benny Gantz, a former military chief and the leader of the centrist Blue and White party. The Sept. 17 election left the sides essentially tied but Mr. Rivlin said that Mr. Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government were greater than Mr. Gantz’s “at the moment.”
But Mr. Netanyahu faces a stiff challenge: He has 28 days to assemble a majority of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Parliament and no clear path to that number. The parties that have endorsed his bid for another term won 55 seats.
Mr. Rivlin had been pushing Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz to forge a broad unity government including both their parties. Mr. Gantz won the endorsement of 54 lawmakers, one less than Mr. Netanyahu.
The two parties met for talks on Tuesday, which quickly broke down.
But on Wednesday, after being selected by Mr. Rivlin in a ceremony broadcast on live television, Mr. Netanyahu said a unity government still seemed the only way out of the political stalemate.
“Neither of us can form a government other than with each other,” Mr. Netanyahu said. And after a difficult election campaign, he said, a unity government was essential “first of all to achieve national reconciliation.”
He also said he was ready for a government with a “joint leadership,” without elaborating how that would work.
The last such unity government was established in the 1980s, when Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir agreed to rotate the premiership. Each served for two years of the four year term.
But the situation today is more complex. Mr. Netanyahu faces possible indictments in three corruption cases, and a special hearing with the attorney general has been scheduled for next Wednesday. He could be charged in the coming weeks or months.
Mr. Gantz’s party has vowed not to sit in a government led by a prime minister facing indictment, and reiterated that position on Wednesday.
“Blue and White, under my leadership, does not agree to sit in a government whose leader is facing a severe indictment,” Mr. Gantz said in a statement soon after Mr. Rivlin’s announcement.
Mr. Gantz also said he could not see a way to a power-sharing agreement since Mr. Netanyahu had already signed a pact with three right-wing and religious parties to stick together in any coalition negotiations.
Mr. Gantz has advocated a secular and liberal unity government excluding ultra-Orthodox parties. At least one of the ultra-Orthodox parties has ruled out joining a government with the number two in Blue and White, Yair Lapid.
It was the second time Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has been given the chance to form a government in five months. He won a plurality in the previous election in April but failed to assemble a majority coalition in its aftermath, leading to a repeat election this month.
Remaining in office is essential for Mr. Netanyahu. If he is charged, he can continue to serve as prime minister until a final conviction. If he were in some lesser ministerial role, he would have to resign.
The hard-line nationalist party led by Avigdor Liberman, with eight seats, could still play the role of kingmaker. Mr. Liberman, a former Netanyahu ally turned rival, has advocated a unity government with Blue and White and Likud, but without Mr. Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
If Mr. Netanyahu fails to assemble a majority coalition in 28 days, the president could grant him a 14-day extension. If Mr. Netanyahu still fails, the mantle could be passed to Mr. Gantz, who would then have another 28 days to try to form a government.
Mr. Gantz, with the endorsement of 54 lawmakers, would also have no clear path to a majority. Mr. Rivlin noted that 10 of those endorsements came from the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, which said it would refuse to sit in a Gantz-led or Netanyahu-led government.