As Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz announced he would not be able to form a government and would return his mandate to President Reuven Rivlin, Israel entered an unprecedented moment of political uncertainty.
After two failed rounds of unity talks led by the leaders of Israel's two major political forces, Gantz's decison raises the chances of a third election cycle within a year.
President Reuven Rivlin released a statement on Wednesday night saying that he will officially inform Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Thursday that the nomination is to go to the Knesset floor, for the first time in Israel's history.
Israel's divided legislature now has 21 days to nominate a candidate. Any Knesset member with the backing of at least 61 out of 120 lawmakers would be tapped to form a coalition on a first come, first serve basis.
The Knesset's legal adviser Eyal Yinon said lawmakers could back more than one candidate. He also stated that backing a candidate in a petition to President Rivlin doesn't necessarily require support for that candidate's coalition in a Knesset vote.
The selected nominee, who would be officially tasked by Rivlin within two days of him receiving a signed petition by a majority of Knesset members, will then have 14 days to form a coalition.
Lawmakers may nominate any Knesset member, including Netanyahu and Gantz. The deadline for the Knesset to tap a candidate is December 11. If no nominee is selected, or if the nominee also fails, Israel's third election in less than a year will be held within 90 days.
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What happens next is likely to become a subject of intense discussion as days pass and deals are made, but the same three outcomes remain most likely: A unity government between Likud and Kahol Lavan; an inflated center-left government with some defections from Likud; and a narrow government supported by Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu.
Lieberman, who precipitated this elongated election period a hair more than a year ago by resigning from his post as defense minister, and became the election's kingmaker, spelled the demise of Gantz's efforts on Wednesday noon, declaring he would not support any minority government.
Lieberman blamed both Netanyahu and Gantz for the political deadlock, saying both men refused to budge from their positions for personal reasons.
In the last few hours, lawmakers on both sides of the divide used the same reasoning to blame the demise of a potential unity government.
Gantz said the right-wing bloc had put the interests of one man over those of a whole country - hinting at Netanyahu's attempts to seek immunity from prosecution and avoid lurking charges of bribery and corruption.
“The [right-wing] bloc stood firm, insisting to only see the best interest of one person before that of the patients lying in hospital corridors,” Gantz said in reference to Israel’s dire health system.
Likud officials said an agreement with Kahol Lavan was foiled by senior party officials Yair Lapid and Moshe Yaalon.
During a meeting of the parties that make up the right-wing bloc Wednesday, Netanyahu addressed Gantz and called on him to “free himself from the veto” of his co-leader Yair Lapid and join him in a unity government, saying, “we cannot drag the country into another election.”
In an odd reference to his popular appeal, Israel's longest-serving prime minister insisted he knew from the "tea ladies" who serve him that the nation wants a unity government.
According to Likud sources, both parties’ negotiation teams were close to agreeing that Netanyahu would serve first in a rotating premiership agreement, that he would declare incapacity and take a leave of absence within six months to a year if an indictment is filed against him, and that the right-wing bloc wouldn’t be dismantled.
Lieberman criticized both Gantz and Netanyahu for refusing to compromise. “One wasn’t prepared to accept the president’s outline,” he said, referring to Gantz, while adding that, “Netanyahu wasn’t prepared to separate from his Haredi-messianic bloc.”
According to Lieberman, Netanyahu tried to drag things out during the negotiations, while Kahol Lavan “played a double game,” not accepting the president’s outline while also trying to set up a government with the Haredi parties.
Lieberman said he had gotten very tempting offers to join the government, including being named deputy premier, and even becoming prime minister during the last year of the government. “We don’t sell out our principles, even for seats,” he said.
A secular ultra-nationalist, Lieberman leads a party that is popular with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and is ideologically opposed to both Arab parties and Jewish religious parties.
"The real cooperation in this Knesset – coalition, opposition, it doesn’t matter – is between the Arab and Haredi MKs. It’s an anti-Zionist coalition that’s playing with both blocs,” Lieberman said, referring to pleasantries exchanged between MKs Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) and Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) on Tuesday.