JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel’s president on Tuesday handed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the difficult task of trying to form a new government, giving the embattled Israeli leader a chance to extend his long term in office.
But with the newly elected parliament deeply divided and the prime minister on trial on corruption charges, Netanyahu had little to celebrate.
He now has up to six weeks to lure his political enemies into a coalition, an effort that seems unlikely to succeed. At the same time, those opponents will work to form an alternative government that could end their 12-year reign.
In a meeting with members of his Likud party, Netanyahu adopted a statesman tone and said that he would be the prime minister of all Israel’s citizens, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular.
“We will take care of everyone,” he said, vowing to “remove Israel from the cycle of recurring elections and establish a strong government for all citizens of Israel.”
President Reuven Rivlin addressed Netanyahu in the wake of Israel’s fourth inconclusive election in the past two years.
In a post-election ritual, Rivlin had consulted with each of the 13 parties elected to the Knesset, or parliament, on Monday in hopes of finding a consensus on a candidate for prime minister. But neither Netanyahu, nor his main rival, Yair Lapid, received the backing of the majority of lawmakers.
When he announced his decision on Tuesday, a distraught Rivlin said that neither candidate had the necessary support to form a majority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset. He also noted that there are many doubts about Netanyahu’s permanence in office during the trial.
However, he said there was nothing in the law preventing Netanyahu from continuing as prime minister and said he believed Netanyahu had a better chance than his rivals to build a coalition.
“This is not an easy decision on a moral and ethical basis,” Rivlin said. “The state of Israel should not be taken for granted. And I fear for my country ”.
Netanyahu did not attend Tuesday’s announcement, as is tradition, and later Rivlin did not appear with Netanyahu in the usual photo of the inauguration of the new parliament, movements that local media interpreted as a sign of the president’s unhappiness with the situation. .
Netanyahu now has an initial 28-day period to form a coalition, a period Rivlin could extend for two more weeks.
Netanyahu has received the backing of 52 lawmakers, more than his rivals, but has yet to reach the 61-seat majority needed to form a government.
Securing the support of nine more legislators will not be easy. Netanyahu will use his formidable powers of persuasion, along with generous offers from powerful government ministries, to woo his potential partners.
Netanyahu is likely to require the backing of Raam, a small Arab Islamist party. Raam’s leader, Mansour Abbas, has left the door open to cooperate with Netanyahu if he helps the Arab sector of Israel, which has long suffered from crime, discrimination and poverty.
But one of Netanyahu’s allies, the Zionist religious party, has an openly racist platform and refuses to serve in a government with Arab partners. Netanyahu could lure in the rabbis who serve as the party’s spirit guides in hopes of changing his mind.
Netanyahu also likely needs the support of Yamina, a religious nationalist party led by former ally-turned-rival Naftali Bennett, who has also been cool with an alliance with Arab parties.
Bennett, a former Netanyahu aide, promised to negotiate in “good faith” on Tuesday but made no promises to his former mentor.
Netanyahu’s last hope will be to try to attract “defectors” from other opposition parties. For now, however, Netanyahu’s opponents have vowed to stand firm, especially after the painful experience of the previous government.
Following last year’s elections, Netanyahu and his main rival at the time, Benny Gantz, agreed on an “emergency” government to deal with the coronavirus crisis. Their association was plagued by infighting and collapsed within half a year, prompting the March 23 elections.
“The chances of Netanyahu forming a government, as it seems right now, are quite low,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Institute of Democracy, a Jerusalem think tank.
Netanyahu’s corruption trial looms over the negotiations, which resumed this week with testimony from the first of a series of witnesses who testified against him.
Netanyahu has been accused of fraud, breach of trust and taking bribes in a series of scandals. He denies the charges and this week compared the case to “an attempted coup.”
Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, acknowledged on Tuesday that the law left Rivlin “no other option” but nevertheless said that turning to Netanyahu was a “disgraceful disgrace that tarnishes Israel.”
Lapid has offered an alternative: a power-sharing agreement with Bennett that would see the two men rotate between the prime minister’s job. They are expected to hold intense negotiations in the coming weeks.
Plesner, a former Knesset member, said the Bennett-Lapid partnership has “a reasonable chance of materializing.”
Lapid could deliver on his key campaign promise to topple Netanyahu, while Bennett, whose party has just seven seats, would be the first to be prime minister.
“For both of us, it’s a very lucrative deal,” Plesner said.
Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Israel, said Netanyahu’s opponents who share his hardline ideology, including Bennett, would rather see him fail than rally against him.
“Otherwise, they would have been viewed, from their own right-wing grassroots perspective, as traitors,” he said.
The new parliament takes office at a time of deep polarization in Israeli society. Last month’s election was seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s divisive leadership style, and the result was an ongoing stalemate.
Netanyahu’s supporters see him as a global statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country. His opponents accuse him of pressuring the country through repeated elections in the hopes of producing a parliament that grants him immunity from criminal prosecution.
In a sign of those divisions, around 100 protesters raised LGBT pride flags and a simulated submarine in a noisy rally outside the Knesset when the new parliament was sworn in. The pride flags were aimed at pro-Netanyahu religious Zionists, whose members are openly homophobic, while the submarine points to a corruption scandal involving the purchase of German submarines.
When the new Knesset took office, Rivlin called for unity. It was the last time Rivlin will address such a meeting, and the outgoing president, who is leaving office this summer, was excited.
“If we don’t learn and find a partnership model that allows us to live here together, out of mutual respect, out of mutual commitment and genuine solidarity, our national resilience will be in real danger.” he said.