Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz attend a ceremony at the President's residence in Jerusalem, on Oct. 23, 2019. Benny Gantz, Israel's former military chief, was given on Wednesday the mandate to form a new government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's failure to do so amid a political deadlock. (Photo by Gil Cohen Magen/Xinhua)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz attend a ceremony at the President's residence in Jerusalem, on Oct. 23, 2019. Benny Gantz, Israel's former military chief, was given on Wednesday the mandate to form a new government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's failure to do so amid a political deadlock. (Photo by Gil Cohen Magen/Xinhua)

by Keren Setton

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin turned down a request on Sunday by the Blue and White party leader to extend his mandate to form a government.

In his rejection, Rivlin set the Monday midnight as the deadline for Benny Gantz and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, to form a unity government.

Failure to reach an agreement would most likely lead Israel to a fourth election, after three consecutive ones within the past year led to inconclusive results.

Gantz received the mandate to form a government last month, days after Israel’s third election. At the end of March, he and Netanyahu announced they were close to forming a unity government considering an emergency state amid the novel coronavirus crisis.

However, a few days ago, in yet another twist of events, negotiations between the two sides were halted in an apparent disagreement on judicial matters such as veto-power in appointments for judges and prevention of legislation that would bar Netanyahu from ruling under indictment.

Nestled in the potential agreement was a rotation on the premiership, in which Netanyahu would step down after 18 months and hand over the reins to Gantz. It was a difficult pill for Netanyahu to swallow and many believed he never intended to take the pill in the first place.

On Saturday night, Gantz asked for a two-week extension for his mandate. In his response statement released on Sunday, Rivlin refused by saying “no extension would be possible under the current circumstances.”

The president’s decision came after a conversation with Netanyahu who “did not confirm … that the parties are close to signing an agreement that would lead to a unity government.”

Rivlin departed from protocol and tradition in which candidates who have asked for an extension have always received approval.

If there will be no change by Monday midnight, the mandate will be returned to Israel’s parliament for 21 days. If no parliament member receives the much coveted 61 signatures to form a government, a new election will be scheduled.

By returning the mandate to the parliament without giving another candidate Netanyahu a shot first, Rivlin is racking up the pressure.

“Rivlin wants to push Blue and White and the Likud party (led by Netanyahu) to reach an agreement quickly,” said Assaf Shapira, a researcher at the Israeli Democracy Institute.

“It also leaves the option open in the 21 days to still reach an agreement for a unity government,” he added.

Looming amid the political deadlock and the COVID-19 crisis are Netanyahu’s legal woes. As Israel’s first prime minister to be indicted for corruption, his first appearance in court was delayed for COVID-19 restrictions that shutdown the judicial system.

The Israeli law on handing the mandate to a candidate under indictment is unclear. Should Netanyahu be tasked with government formation, there will likely be several petitions to the Supreme Court to prevent him from doing so.

When Gantz announced he would be heading to a power-sharing agreement with Netanyahu, his party immediately collapsed.

Two of his main partners were against his U-turn on his leading campaign promise not to sit with an indicted prime minister in the same government.

“Gantz is at a dead end. Politically, Netanyahu made a fantastic move as he usually does. He dismantled the opposition for a very long time,” said Eran Vigoda-Gadot, a professor of political science and governance at the University of Haifa.

“Gantz received the mandate to form a government, and with this mandate he essentially formed a government for someone else,” Vigoda-Gadot told Xinhua.

As Israel’s longest serving prime minister, the political instincts of 70-year-old Netanyahu are still sharp. The COVID-19 crisis has elevated his status as the nation’s caretaker, as many perceive him as the country’s most skillful navigator in troubling times.

Recent polls by Israeli media showed his approval ratings sky-rocketing and his party winning 42 seats, way ahead of Gantz’s 18 in a presumed election. The Israeli prime minister might have toyed with the coalition negotiations because he felt another election would solidify his position.

“Gantz lost a lot of his public image and credibility. Netanyahu’s options look much better, including heading to a fourth election. But because of Gantz’s weakness, he might concede to Netanyahu’s demands and enter a unity government,” said Shapira. Enditem

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