Benjamin Netanyahu has come out narrowly ahead of his rival, Benny Gantz, during consultations with Israeli parliamentarians on who should lead the next government, although it remained unclear if he would be chosen to form a coalition.
President Reuven Rivlin ended two days of talks on Monday with representatives from all the Knesset parties, following a stalled election last week that has thrown uncertainly over the country’s political future.
Members from rightwing, centre-left, religious, far-right nationalist and Arab parties gave their recommendations on who should lead. By the end of talks, Netanyahu was one point ahead, with 55 endorsements over Gantz’s 54.
However, Rivlin, who is tasked after an election with picking a candidate to form a government, has suggested that since neither Netanyahu or Gantz have a majority of 61 seats that they form a unity government together.
“A stable government cannot be formed without the two big parties and this, I believe, is the will of the people,” Rivlin’s office quoted him as saying.
The president invited Netanyahu and Gantz to meet him for closed-door talks late on Monday evening in a effort to break the deadlock. Discussion could continue into next week before a decision is made.
On Sunday, Gantz appeared to briefly be the favourite after an alliance of Arab parliamentarians who largely represent Palestinian citizens of Israel announced they would endorse the ex-military general.
Support from the Joint List, which won 13 seats in Tuesday’s polls, made the bloc the third-largest force in the 120-seat Knesset. However, Rivlin said on Monday morning that three Arab politicians from the Palestinian nationalist Balad party had abstained – putting Netanyahu ahead by one recommendation.
Rivlin, whose role is usually ceremonial, is not obliged to pick Netanyahu. He can choose any candidate he believes has the best chance of forming a government. Usually, the decision is clear, and often goes to the leader of the largest party, but the muddied election result has created an impasse.
Netanyahu has backed the idea of a unity government, although he has been coy about who would lead or if the role would be rotated. Gantz has ruled out serving with Netanyahu, who is facing the prospect of three corruption indictments.
The Israeli PM is embroiled in four cases involving allegations of bribery and misconduct. He denies wrongdoing in every instance.
Case 1000 is an investigation into gifts received on a regular basis by Netanyahu and his family from two wealthy businessmen, including cigars and pink champagne.
Case 2000 is examining whether Netanyahu behaved improperly during a taped conversation with a newspaper publisher in which he appeared to try to negotiate more sympathetic coverage in return for lowering the circulation of a rival paper.
Case 3000 is an inquiry into alleged kickbacks in a deal to buy German submarines. Netanyahu is not a suspect, but he was closely involved in the deal and the case has ensnared members of his inner circle.
Case 4000, the most serious, involves allegations that Netanyahu offered incentives to the Israeli telecoms company Bezeq in exchange for positive stories in an online news website it owns, Walla.
If they do not join together, the president has the power to choose either, who will then have up to six weeks to form a majority government. If that person fails, Rivlin could then ask a second candidate.
That scenario played out in May after Netanyahu failed to cobble together a coalition following a similar election result. But rather than give the opposition a chance to forge a government, he instead pushed to dissolve the Knesset, triggering repeat elections and giving himself another chance.
Many fear a third election will be called if the current stalemate continues. Israel’s apparent kingmaker, the far-right ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, has said he will not back either and also called for a unity government.
Sunday’s endorsement of Gantz by Arab parties, while not giving him a clear lead, broke an almost-three-decade policy of not supporting an Israeli leader while the occupation in the Palestinians territories continues.
The last time Arab parties backed a candidate was in 1992, when they supported Yitzhak Rabin, who went on to sign the Oslo accords with the Palestinians. Palestinian citizens of Israel, or Arab Israelis, make up close to a fifth of the 9 million population.
Leaders in the group made clear they were not backing Gantz, who led a devastating 2014 war on Gaza, but instead attempting to topple Netanyahu, whose election campaign focused on demonising Arab Palestinian citizens and who pushed for a law they say made them second-class citizens.
“We have become illegitimate in Israeli politics in the Netanyahu era,” the leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, told Rivlin when informing him of the endorsement. “We are this time recommending Benny Gantz to form the next government.”
The prominent Arab parliament member Ahmad Tibi added: “History is done: we’ll do what is needed to bring down Netanyahu.”