Jerusalem CNN  — 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been given the first chance to try to form a new government after preliminary attempts to negotiate a unity coalition between Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz failed.

Elections held last week failed to produce a clear path to government for either man, leading to efforts by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin to try to get them to work together.

But after a second meeting with the two leaders Wednesday ended with no breakthrough, Rivlin acted quickly to get the formal process of coalition building underway.

“The decision to give the mandate [to Netanyahu] was based on the question of who has the better chance of forming a government,” Rivlin explained. “Right now, Benjamin Netanyahu’s chance of forming a government is higher.”

Rivlin urged Netanyahu and all potential coalition allies to reach an agreement, warning, “The country does not want more elections.”

Tough task for Netanyahu

It is the second time this year Netanyahu has been asked to form a government. After he failed in April to put together the required 61-seat coalition, he triggered new elections rather than allow any other member of parliament the opportunity to try to form a government.

The 69-year-old leader will now have four weeks to form a coalition, with a possible two-week extension if required. His task this time around looks even harder. Following April’s election, he had a total of 60 seats with his ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist partners; now he has just 55 seats.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), Israeli president of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut (C) and Benny Gantz (L), leader of Blue and White party, attend a memorial ceremony for late Israeli president Shimon Peres.

Though Gantz’s Blue and White party won one more seat than Netanyahu’s Likud party, Gantz was only able to muster the backing of 54 seats in the Knesset, drawn from the center-left parties plus three of the four Arab parties.

Standing next to Netanyahu as he handed over the mandate Wednesday evening, President Rivlin expressed no illusions about the challenge facing the political system, and he implored those politicians who have ruled out sharing power with religious parties or with Arab parties, among others, to drop their objections.

“As long as there are boycotts of whole parts of Israeli society, as long as there is no interest in forming new alliances between large and small parties, as long as there is no real desire to reach an agreement and to compromise, no government can be established,” Rivlin said.

Accepting the task of forming a government, Netanyahu made a fresh appeal to his main opponent: “We will not be able to put together a government, except together. And that’s a unity government. A unity government can be put together quickly.”

In response, Gantz issued a statement saying he remained in favour of a broad, liberal unity government, but not under a Prime Minister suspected of criminal activity. “Blue and White under my leadership does not agree to sit in a government in which its leader faces a severe indictment. This issue, along with other essential issues, is more important to us than the distribution of ministries or a rotation government.”