Israel’s president says no party leader has enough support to form a governing majority but handed the job to embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid his corruption trial.
Reuven Rivlin’s announcement on Tuesday nudged forward the twin dramas over the country’s future and Netanyahu’s fate, giving Israel’s longest-serving prime minister another chance to try to salvage his career.
Netanyahu holds the most support – 52 seats – in Israel’s splintered Knesset, but that is still short of a 61-seat majority.
If the warring political factions agree on anything, it is that Israel should not endure an unprecedented fifth consecutive election.
“No candidate has a realistic chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of the Knesset,” Rivlin said, adding if the law allowed, he would have given the decision back to the Knesset to resolve.
“I know the position held by many, that the president should not give the role to a candidate that is facing criminal charges,” Rivlin said. But the law says he must.
“Benjamin Netanyahu has a slightly higher chance of forming a government. I have decided to entrust him with the task of doing so.”
Fit to continue serving?
It was short of a full-throated endorsement. The charges facing Israel’s longest-serving prime minister presented the president with an extraordinary choice whether “morality” should be a factor in who should lead the government.
The March 23 election revolved around whether Netanyahu is fit to continue serving. His Likud party won the most seats, but no party won a governing majority of 61 seats in the Knesset. That handed Rivlin the task of deciding who has the best chance of cobbling together a coalition.
Netanyahu denies all charges and says prosecutors are trying to undermine the voters intent and overthrow him.
In the 120-member Knesset, centrist politician and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party garnered 45 endorsements and former defence minister Naftali Bennett of the far-right Yamina party got seven.
Three parties, with a total of 16 parliamentary seats, declined in their meetings with Rivlin to nominate a candidate.
Netanyahu has urged Bennett and another former ally, Gideon Saar, who founded the right-wing New Horizon party after leaving the prime minister’s conservative Likud, to join him to break the deadlock.
Bennett has been non-committal about teaming up again with Netanyahu, with whom he has had a rocky relationship.
Saar has said he would not serve under Netanyahu, citing the prime minister’s corruption trial – which opened on Monday – but stopped short of endorsing Lapid.
Netanyahu, who has denied any criminal wrongdoing, attended part of the court session and later repeated accusations that the prosecution’s case was “an attempted coup” aimed at overthrowing a “strong, right-wing prime minister”.
Lapid said on Monday he proposed a coalition deal to Bennett. Under the arrangement, Bennett would serve first as prime minister and then Lapid would take over.
“The Israeli public needs to see that its leaders can work together,” Lapid said in a televised address.
Bennett made no immediate comment about Lapid’s offer. Political commentators said such a deal might also pave the way for right-winger Saar to join Lapid, with the prospect of Bennett, a fellow conservative, at the helm.
Netanyahu will have 28 days to try to put together a coalition and can request a two-week extension from Rivlin, who has the option of assigning the task to someone else if no government is formed.