Benjamin Netanyahu has abandoned his attempt to form a new coalition in a development that plunges Israel into further political uncertainty.
The long-serving prime minister fell short of securing a 61-seat parliamentary majority in last month’s election.
President Reuven Rivlin gave him the first opportunity to form a government because he had the support of 55 politicians in the Knesset – one more than his main rival, ex-military chief Benny Gantz.
Mr Netanyahu, 70, had hoped to form a broad “unity” government with Mr Gantz of the Blue and White party.
However, on Monday evening Mr Netanyahu announced he had failed – two days before the deadline to present a coalition.
In a statement, Mr Netanyahu said: “Since I received the mandate, I have worked tirelessly both in public and behind the scenes to establish a broad, national unity government. That’s what the people want.
“During the past few weeks, I made every effort to bring Benny Gantz to the negotiating table. Every effort to establish a broad national unity government, every effort to prevent another election.
“To my regret, time after time he declined. He simply refused.”
Mr Rivlin said he would give 60-year-old Mr Gantz a chance to form a government – and has 28 days to entice potential allies – but if Mr Gantz fails, Israel could hold its third election in less than a year.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party was second in the September election, winning 32 seats compared with Mr Gantz’s Blue and White party’s 33.
Mr Netanyahu remains leader of the Likud party but having failed a second time this year to form a coalition and with Israel’s attorney general set to decide in the coming weeks on whether to indict him in a series of corruption cases, the country’s leader could come under heavy pressure to step down.
He is Israel’s longest-serving leader, having served from June 1996 until July 1999 and from March 2009 until now.
Because Israel uses a proportional representation model it has always been governed by coalitions.
This means the larger parties depend on smaller parties to form what is usually either a right-wing or left-wing governing partnership.
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