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Israel MPs tasked with ending deadlock over unity govt

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's president on Thursday tasked parliament with forming a government after its centrist speaker Benny Gantz failed to reach a unity deal with right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Following a March 2 election, Israel's third stalemate vote in less than a year, Gantz was given a four-week mandate to form a stable governing coalition.

After he was elected speaker late last month, the ex-military chief pledged to forge an emergency unity government with the veteran premier who has been in office since 2009.

Gantz conceded that Netanyahu would lead that government as prime minister, at least to begin with, as Israel confronts the coronavirus pandemic.

After assuring President Reuven Rivlin that they were close to agreement, Gantz and Netanyahu were given until the end of Wednesday to reach a deal.

The deadline passed without any announcement of a breakthrough, although a joint statement issued on Thursday said the talks were ongoing.

"Upon finalisation of the meeting between the respective negotiating teams last night, it was concluded to continue discussions today, with the aim of reaching an agreement toward the establishment of a national emergency government," the statement said.

Meanwhile, Rivlin officially informed Gantz that his mandate had expired.

Rivlin "informed speaker of the Knesset Benny Gantz that he is entrusting the Knesset with the task of forming a government," a statement from his office said.

The president noted that neither Gantz nor Netanyahu currently has the backing of a majority of lawmakers in Israel's deeply divided 120-member parliament.

But as the country grapples with the coronavirus, Rivlin implored lawmakers to find a solution that enables Israel to avoid a fourth election.

A Netanyahu-Gantz deal would have given Israel its first stable government since December 2018 and a more representative leadership to guide it through the tough decisions that still have to be taken about the coronavirus shutdown and its devastating economic toll.

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