The Israeli prime minister has managed to deploy the same old tricks every time his re-election has been threatened.
The announcement on Wednesday followed a joint meeting between President Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu and the prime minister’s main challenger, Benny Gantz, who ruled out joining a government led by “a leader against whom stands a severe [corruption] indictment”.
Netanyahu, the right-wing Likud party’s 69-year-old chief and Israel’s longest-serving leader, has 28 days to put together a government and can ask the president for a two-week extension, if necessary.
If he fails, centrist Gantz of the Blue and White party will likely be given a chance.
“I have decided to give you, Sir, the opportunity to assemble a government,” Rivlin told Netanyahu at a nomination ceremony broadcast live on TV.
Accepting the mandate from Rivlin, a politically-weakened Netanyahu said his chances of success were only marginally higher than those of Gantz, a former general.
In his remarks, Netanyahu seemed to envision a scenario in which he and Gantz would be able to take another stab at power-sharing once it became clear there was no way out of the current deadlock, save for a third election that few in Israel wanted.
“If I don’t succeed, I will return the mandate to you and with the help of God and Israel’s citizens and yourself, Mr President, we will establish a broad national unity government down the line,” he said.
Netanyahu, facing a looming indictment on corruption allegations he denies, still has no clear path to a fifth term after emerging from the September 17 ballot, the second this year, short of a parliamentary majority.
The Likud-led bloc of right-wing and religious parties is six seats short of a ruling majority in the 120-seat parliament. In the new countdown, Likud has the pledged support of 55 legislators against 54 for Blue and White party.
Netanyahu called for the swift formation of a broad unity government, saying “national reconciliation” was needed in light of alleged threats from Iran and the unveiling of US President Donald Trump‘s soon-to-be-announced peace “deal of the century“.
Elise Jacobs, a partner of the Truman National Security Project, said that the president chose Netanyahu for the duty as it made the most sense to him.
“At this point, all the Likud ministers have fully sworn allegiance to Netanyahu. So the idea that they are going to toss him overboard is far-fetched, but it is not impossible,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The president, as a mostly symbolic figure, is doing everything he can to avoid a third election in 2019. And he is also a former member of the Likud,” he added.
Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White party failed to reach a coalition deal in talks launched on Tuesday.
Shortly after Wednesday’s announcement, Gantz ruled out his Blue and White party joining a government led by a prime minister facing serious indictment, a reference to Netanyahu’s legal situation
“Blue and White led by me will not agree to sit in a government with a leader against whom stands a severe indictment,” Gantz said in a statement, according to AFP news agency.
Reporting from West Jerusalem, Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett said the Arab parties are unlikely to go with Gantz.
“Hypothetically, Gantz had 54 because he had his own 33, plus 11 from centre-left parties and another 10 from members of the joint list of Palestinian-Israeli parties. Those 10, however, would not sit with Gantz in a government,” he said.
Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a possible kingmaker, has been keeping his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party on the fence since the election, citing differences with both Likud’s and Blue and White’s political allies.
Next month, Israel’s attorney general will hold a pre-trial hearing on his announced intention to indict Netanyahu on fraud and bribery charges in three corruption cases.
Netanyahu, who says he is a victim of a political witch-hunt, can argue at the session against being charged.
As prime minister, Netanyahu would be under no legal obligation to resign if formal charges were filed. But any other cabinet post might not offer him that protection.