Netanyahu rival seeks support from PM's party to form government

Israeli centrist leader Benny Gantz is seeking support from embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party to form a government to avoid a third general election after the premier was indicted for corruption (AFP Photo/Jack GUEZ)

Tel Aviv (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's centrist rival Benny Gantz Saturday urged leaders of the premier's Likud party to join him in forming a government after their chief's indictment on corruption charges.

"In light of the circumstances, I call for the formation of the largest possible government under my leadership," Gantz told a news conference, addressing members of the right-wing Likud.

"I would be the prime minister for the first two years," he said.

And if Netanyahu "is cleared (of any wrongdoing) he could return and become prime minister", Gantz added.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday he had charged Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, prompting speculation that the end of the premier's decade-long tenure was nigh.

The indictment came as Israel edged closer to its third general election in a year, after two inconclusive polls in April and September.

On Wednesday former army general Gantz, whose party gained one more seat than Likud in the September poll, said he was unable to form a government and secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White coalition, was asked to form a government by President Reuven Rivlin after Netanyahu also failed to do so.

Netanyahu remains the country's interim premier, however.

Parliament now has less than three weeks to find a candidate who can gain the support of more than half of the Knesset's 120 lawmakers, or a deeply unpopular third election will be called.

Gantz, speaking in Tel Aviv, said his proposal was "the only alternative to holding new elections".

Under Israeli law, while ministers cannot remain in place after being indicted, a prime minister is not legally required to resign unless convicted and with any appeals processes exhausted.

In addition to the premiership, Netanyahu holds portfolios including agriculture and health, positions he may have to vacate in the coming days.

Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted in office on corruption charges, has denounced a "coup" against him, dismissed the charges as "false" and "politically motivated" and vowed to hold onto power.