Israel's president starts consultations on prime minister nomination

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's president began post-election consultations on Monday with political parties that will lead to his appointment of a candidate to form a government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nomination seemed virtually ensured after his right-wing Likud won the largest number of parliamentary seats in Tuesday's ballot, and his closest rival, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, conceded defeat.

The president, Reuven Rivlin, said he would announce his choice on Wednesday after meeting with all of the parties that captured seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Under Israeli law, after consultations with the parties the president taps a legislator whom he believes has the best chance of forming a government, delegating 28 days, with a two-week extension if necessary, to complete the task.

Netanyahu said he intends to build a coalition with five far-right, right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that would give a Likud-led government 65 seats, four more than the outgoing administration he heads.

Four of those parties have already said they would back Netanyahu, bringing his tally of seats to 60.

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, which won five seats and meets Rivlin on Tuesday, has not formally declared he would join a Likud-led coalition.

But political commentators, noting Lieberman's sharp differences with left-wing and Arab parties whose support Gantz would need to govern, predicted he would sign up with Netanyahu after pressing for concessions in coalition negotiations.

Gantz, a former military chief whose party won 35 parliamentary seats, would likely be next in line to try to put together a government if Netanyahu fails.

For the first time, Rivlin's consultations with the parties were being broadcast live as part of what he described as a display of transparency in what has historically been a closed-door process in Israel.

At the meeting with Likud representatives, Culture Minister Miri Regev noted Netanyahu had won re-election despite Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit's announcement in February that he plans to charge the prime minister in three graft cases.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing. He can still argue, at a pre-trial hearing with Mandelblit whose date has not been set, against the filing of bribery and fraud charges against him.

The Israeli leader is under no legal obligation to resign if indicted.

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