Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, was given the mandate to form a new government by Israeli president Reuven Rivlin on Monday after receiving the most recommendations from parties elected to the new Knesset.
Mr Gantz, who received the support of 61 members from the 120-seat parliament, has 28 days to cobble together a working coalition but he faces an uphill task as almost the only thing uniting the parties recommending him was the desire to oust Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister.
Mr Gantz vowed that within a few days, he would form a “wide, patriotic” government that would “represent all citizens of Israel”.
In addition to Blue and White, Yisrael Beiteinu and Labour-Meretz recommended Mr Gantz for prime minister along with the predominantly Arab Joint List, which is ready to support the government from outside the coalition. But there are at least two Knesset members in Blue and White who refuse to support a government backed by the Joint List – which contains radical anti-Zionist factions – leaving Mr Gantz short of a majority.
Mr Netanyahu received the support of 58 Knesset members, three short of a majority. Without some kind of unity agreement between Blue and White and Mr Netanyahu's Likud, Israel may be facing its fourth election in just over a year, with no certainty that another vote would end the deadlock.
The Blue and White leadership must decide if the coronavirus crisis is a reason to break its most important promise to its voters – to replace Mr Netanyahu and not sit in a government under a prime minister indicted on corruption charges.
The coronavirus pandemic has increased the pressure for an emergency unity government involving rotation of the prime minister. Former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the right-wing, secular Yisrael Beiteinu, says his party will back a Blue and White-Likud government from the outside as long as no other smaller parties are brought in.
But the problem remains who would serve first as prime minister in such a unity coalition. Blue and White insists Mr Gantz should go first as he has been tasked with forming a government: Likud insists that Mr Netanyahu, as the outgoing prime minister and with far more leadership experience, is best suited to deal with the crisis and must serve first.
The coronavirus crisis also caused a two-month delay in Mr Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which was due to begin on Tuesday. He is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust but maintains his innocence, claiming he is the victim of a left-wing witch hunt aimed at toppling him from power.
Opening the new Knesset on Monday, Mr Rivlin said he had one request of political leaders. “Give this people a government,” he implored, saying Israelis were “exhausted” from elections.
The coronavirus meant the Knesset members were sworn in three at a time in 40 separate batches, in line with the latest regulations limiting public gatherings to 10 people.