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The main rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won support from Israel's Arab coalition on Sunday to form a government, potentially undermining Netanyahu's plan to stay in power atop a proposed unity cabinet to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

After a third inconclusive election in less than a year left Netanyahu still three seats short of forming a majority, the prime minister has asked his main rival, Benny Gantz, the former chief of the Israeli military, to agree to an "emergency government" to fight the global pandemic.

However, Gantz has so far been cool to the proposal, suggesting he could still try to form a minority government of his own, removing Israel's longest-serving leader.

Israel's president on Sunday said he has decided to give Gantz the first opportunity to form a new government. President Reuven Rivlin's office announced his decision late on Sunday after consulting with leaders of all of the parties elected to parliament.

Speaking at a meeting with Rivlin, Joint List head Ayman Odeh said its voters had said "an emphatic 'no' to a right-wing government and Benjamin Netanyahu".

The Joint List is now the third-biggest party in the Israeli parliament, after achieving a record showing in the March 2 election.

Netanyahu's Likud party denounced any such plans. "While Netanyahu is handling a global and national crisis in the most responsible way, Gantz is racing to form a minority government depending on supporters of terror," the party said on Twitter.

With Netanyahu facing criminal charges in three corruption cases - his trial was supposed to start on Tuesday but was postponed until May 24 amid the health crisis - political rivals have cast doubt on his motives for proposing a unity cabinet.

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Benjamin Netanyahu Benny Gantz
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