Without defections, each side needs the support of Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List, to form a government.
President Reuven Rivlin announced on Monday he will begin consultations next week with Israel’s political rivals in hopes of unravelling the country’s post-election deadlock.
Israel’s presidency is largely a figurehead office. But after national elections, the president is responsible for choosing the leader of the party with the best chance of forming a government to put together a majority coalition in the 120-seat parliament.
That is usually a straightforward decision with the leader of the largest individual party typically selected as the prime minister-designate. But after last Tuesday’s election delivered no clear path to forming a governing majority, Rivlin will face a difficult task.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud is the largest single party with 30 seats. But with his traditional nationalist and ultraorthodox allies, he has secured only 52 seats in parliament.
Netanyahu’s opponents secured 57 seats, also short of a majority, while two parties have not committed to either side.
Rivlin’s office said he would hold two days of consultations with each party starting next Monday. Two days later, he hopes to announce his choice for forming a new coalition. His designated prime minister would then have up to six weeks to work out a coalition deal with other parties.
Likud captured the most seats in the election, but Rivlin is under no legal obligation to task Netanyahu with putting together a government and can pick another candidate instead on the basis of the parties’ recommendations.
It is not an easy task given Israel’s kaleidoscope of changing alliances and rivalries. The factions who oppose Netanyahu have less in common than the right-leaning factions that could join up with him.
And support for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who is under indictment on corruption charges, has dipped.
Rivlin’s consultations will coincide with the resumption of Netanyahu’s trial. Next Monday, witnesses are to begin taking the stand against Netanyahu in the trial’s evidentiary phase, a development that could become embarrassing and time-consuming for the embattled prime minister. Netanyahu has denied all charges against him.
The answer to whether Israel can form a government might not be known for weeks, leaving open the possibility of going to a fifth election in a little more than two years.
Party leaders have already begun behind-the-scenes negotiations, though the talks appear to be in the early stages.
Netanyahu got an endorsement on Monday from the ultraorthodox Shas party, for example. But the party has remained solidly behind him and its endorsement had been widely expected.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, has held meetings with other party heads.
But the real drama will depend on formal decisions by potential kingmakers.
They include Mansour Abbas, leader of a small Arab Islamist party that has endorsed neither side, and onetime Netanyahu allies-turned-opponents Naftali Bennett of Yamina, Gideon Saar of New Hope, and Benny Gantz, the Blue and White party chief.
If they agree on anything, it may be that Israel should not go through a fifth election. The protracted deadlock has left the country of 9.3 million people with a poorly functioning government for long periods of time.
Although Israel has won praise for its recent rollout of a successful coronavirus vaccine campaign, it has struggled to formulate coherent policies and been hobbled by the lack of a proper budget.
Once again, a caretaker government is set to assume power this week until a majority coalition is formed or new elections are held.
Caretaker governments are only supposed to maintain the status quo and avoid making major policy decisions or moves that would hobble a future government.
If no party manages to form a government — which was the case following 2019′s back-to-back parliamentary elections — the Knesset is dissolved and new elections are called within three months. The caretaker government would continue to hold the reins.