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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and President Reuven Rivlin at a ceremony. Image Credit: AFP

Occupied Jerusalem - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel abandoned his latest attempt to form a government on Monday, clearing the way for his chief rival to take a shot but leaving a divided country no closer to knowing who its next leader would be.

It remained to be seen whether the move was the beginning of the end for Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, or just another twist in a political standoff that has paralysed the government for six months.

President Reuven Rivlin said he would give Benny Gantz, the former army chief whose party won one more parliamentary seat than Netanyahu’s in last month’s election, the mandate to try to become the country’s next leader.

But Gantz, a political newcomer who has capitalized on pending corruption cases against Netanyahu, has no clear path to assembling the required 61-seat majority in Israel’s Parliament.

He has 28 days to try. If he fails, Israel could be forced into an unprecedented third election, a prospect few Israelis would relish.

Two days before his 28-day deadline was up, Netanyahu, 70, who has been prime minister since 2009, told Rivlin that he had been unable to put together a parliamentary majority.

Rivlin said he would give the mandate to Gantz, 60, “as soon as possible.”

“The time of spin is over, and it is now time for action,” Gantz’s Blue and White party said in a statement. “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.”

Gantz had resisted entreaties from Netanyahu to join him in a unity government, saying that he would not serve under a prime minister facing indictment. That left open the possibility that Netanyahu might prevail upon a few centrist lawmakers to give him a majority.

They did not, and Gantz’s gamble has paid off, so far.

Now, he will get his chance to try to assemble a majority. Arguing that 80 per cent of Israelis agree on 80 per cent of the issues, he has promised to seek a broad government with conservative partners by working “from the centre out.”

But achieving what Netanyahu could not would be quite a feat. Gantz would need to recruit defectors from the political right, perhaps from within Netanyahu’s Likud party, or persuade Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, to do what so far appears unthinkable: collaborate with Arab politicians.

Netanyahu, who remains prime minister until a new government is formed, is counting on Gantz to fail, forcing a new election.

In a video posted to his Twitter account on Monday, shortly after the end of the Sukkot holiday in Israel, Netanyahu said he had “worked relentlessly, in the open but also in secret, in an effort to form a broad national unity government” with Gantz.

“This is what the people want,” Netanyahu wrote. “This is also what Israel needs in the face of security challenges that are growing by the day, by the hour.”

He said he had made “every effort” to negotiate a unity government with Gantz, but “to my regret, time and time again, he simply refused.”

Gantz, a career soldier making his first run for office, tied with Netanyahu in their first contest in April, but Netanyahu had more supporters in Parliament and was given the chance to form a government. He appeared well on his way to a fourth consecutive term only to be thwarted by a surprise defection by Lieberman.

Rather than let Gantz be given a chance, Netanyahu orchestrated a second election, held on Sept. 17.

Gantz narrowly edged Netanyahu in that election, but Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and ultrareligious parties again came away with a larger bloc in Parliament than Gantz’s alliance of center-left parties. Once more, Netanyahu was handed the first attempt at forming a government.

Netanyahu may still have another path back to the premiership: If Gantz cannot form a government within his allotted time, the president can hand the task to Parliament, giving lawmakers an additional 21 days to come up with a candidate who can command a majority. Netanyahu may be hoping, at that point, that the public and political pressure to avoid a third election will persuade the half-dozen additional lawmakers whose support he needs to come to his side.

The gamesmanship between Netanyahu and Gantz since the election last month has resembled a chess match in which Netanyahu’s position was weaker than after the April election but the conclusion was hardly foregone.

With neither man finding a politically palatable way of achieving a 61-seat majority, a unity government of one sort or another appeared unavoidable, and Rivlin urged both men to agree on one.

Critics said Netanyahu had been showing signs of panic. He pressed his right-wing and religious allies to sign multiple loyalty oaths. And he proposed a Likud party primary, but then abruptly canceled the idea after a popular younger rival, Gideon Saar, declared himself ready to challenge Netanyahu for the party leadership.

Gantz, meanwhile, has been calmly seeking to strengthen his leadership credentials, issuing prime ministerial-like statements in response to local and world events. He hosted the German ambassador to Israel, Dr. Susanne Wasum-Rainer, in his sukkah, the temporary hut or tabernacle that Jews construct for the Sukkot holiday, and said they discussed anti-Semitism and Germany’s decision to cease weapons sales to Turkey, for which he expressed gratitude.

Last week, Gantz requested, and was granted, a meeting with the military chief of staff to update himself on security developments in the region. That meeting was held with the approval of Netanyahu.

Still, Netanyahu has far from given up.

On Monday night he posted a photo of himself and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, thanked Putin for telephoning him with birthday greetings and said they had discussed the situation in Syria, among other things.

“It is still not too late,” he declared in his video. It would still be possible to form a unity government, he said, “if Gantz comes to his senses.”

“This has always been the solution, and this remains the solution,” he said.