Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White party, has rejected an offer by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join forces in a governing coalition under the incumbent.
Gantz, Netanyahu’s main opponent in Israel’s general election, told reporters he should be the prime minister in a broad unity government.
With more than 97 percent of the vote counted, the centrist Blue and White party has 33 seats, while Netanyahu’s Likud party is behind with 31, falling way short of the majority figure of 61.
Gantz, a former army chief, made remarks after Netanyahu called for them to join together in a unity government as results from Tuesday’s deadlocked election showed neither with an obvious path to form a majority coalition.
Moshe Yaalon, a senior Blue and White party leader, said on Thursday his party “will not enter a coalition led by Netanyahu”.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the party’s rejection of the offer.
Earlier, President Reuven Rivlin, who is tasked with approving a new government, welcomed Netanyahu’s overture.
“I congratulate you, Mr Prime Minister, on your joining in this call. This is an important call,” Rivlin said in a speech attended by Netanyahu and Gantz.
In a televised appearance, Netanyahu said earlier on Thursday he had been calling for the creation of a right-wing government but the results of the election proved that will not be possible.
“The people did not fully decide between the two blocs,” Netanyahu said of his and Gantz’s parties.
“Now I call on you, Benny Gantz, we have to create a wide-based unity government today. The people expect from us to be responsible, to cooperate, and that’s why I’m calling on you Benny,” he added.
“Let’s meet today, anytime, to ignite this move.”
On Wednesday, Gantz said he hoped for a “good, desirable unity government”, but had ruled out forming one with a Netanyahu-led Likud, citing looming corruption charges against the prime minister, who denies any wrongdoing.
Akiva Eldar of Al-Monitor website said Netanyahu’s surprise announcement was another “spin” made by the prime minister.
“The proof is in yesterday’s gathering of the Likud and the Orthodox and the ultra-rights to get from them a clear commitment that they are together and they’re not going to betray or stab him in his back,” Eldar told Al Jazeera.
“This is after he made all the members of the previous Likud faction in the upcoming Knesset to sign the same kind of commitment,” he said.
“And now, what he’s doing is trying to throw the hot potato – so to speak – to Gantz’s court and be the first one to blame Gantz for disagreeing to unity.”
Eldar noted that now, the “red line” is Netanyahu’s immunity. If he is not the prime minister, they may agree on a rotation to swap – but that will also mean “political suicide” for Netanyahu while he is not holding the position.
“This means that Netanyahu can be indicted because a minister doesn’t have immunity,” Eldar noted. “The name of the game is saving Netanyahu from jail – anything else will not work.”
According to the electoral commission, 69.4 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote on Tuesday in Israel’s second general election since April’s polls.
The Arab Joint List, an alliance of four smaller parties representing Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, has become the third-largest bloc with 12 seats.
Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu is expected to win nine seats.
In remarks made a day earlier, Netanyahu said he would seek the establishment of a new “Zionist” government that excludes Arab parties.
During his campaign, Netanyahu pledged to annex illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and last week promised to “apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea immediately” if he won the election.
There are about 4.8 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip.
Gantz, who made similar pledges in the past, had called for pursuing peace with the Palestinians, and has remained largely silent on the US-sponsored so-called Middle East peace plan – the details of which are expected to be rolled out following the formation of the Israeli government.