Israel’s president has tapped opposition leader Yair Lapid to form a new government – a step that could lead to the end of the lengthy rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
President Reuven Rivlin announced his decision on live television on Wednesday, a day after Netanyahu failed to cobble together a governing coalition by a midnight deadline.
Rivlin spent the day consulting with all of the parties elected to Israel’s parliament and announced that he believes Lapid has the best chance of forming a coalition, as the former finance minister had the pledged support of 56 of parliament’s 120 members – still short of a majority.
Rivlin said that “it is clear that Knesset member Yair Lapid has a chance to form a government that will earn the confidence of the Knesset, even if the difficulties are many”.
In a statement accepting the nomination, Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, said he aimed to establish a government of the left, right and centre “that will reflect the fact that we don’t hate one another”.
But Lapid, 57, has ruled out serving in a government with Netanyahu, citing the criminal indictment against the prime minister.
Lapid, whose late father was a cabinet minister and who himself is a veteran journalist and politician, now has four weeks to reach a deal with potential partners.
While Lapid faces a difficult task, he now has the chance to make history by ending the reign of Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Netanyahu has held the post for a total of 15 years, including the past 12.
Lapid entered parliament in 2013 after a successful career as a newspaper columnist, TV anchor and author. His new Yesh Atid party ran a successful rookie campaign, landing Lapid the powerful post of finance minister.
But he and Netanyahu did not get along, and the coalition quickly crumbled. Yesh Atid has been in opposition since the 2015 elections. The party is popular with secular, middle-class voters and has been critical of Netanyahu’s close ties with ultra-Orthodox parties and said the prime minister should step down while on trial for corruption charges.
Elections held on March 23 ended in deadlock for the fourth consecutive time in the past two years. Despite repeated meetings with many of his rivals and unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Palestinian-Israeli party, Netanyahu was unable to close a deal.
Rivlin, whose post is mostly ceremonial, is responsible for designating a party leader to form a government after each election. He gave Netanyahu the first chance after 52 members of parliament endorsed him as prime minister last month. That was short of a 61-seat majority, but the highest number for any party leader.
During Wednesday’s consultations, the 52-member pro-Netanyahu bloc asked Rivlin not to choose another candidate and instead ask parliament to decide upon a prime minister. In a statement, Netanyahu’s Likud party said such a move “will save another period of uncertainty for the state of Israel”.
But Rivlin rejected the proposal, saying it would “bring us to fifth elections without exhausting all options to forming a government”.
Lapid, who received the backing of some 56 lawmakers on Wednesday, already has offered a power-sharing deal to Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party. Under the proposal, the two men would share the prime minister’s job in a rotation, with Bennett holding the post first.
Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally turned rival, controls just seven seats in parliament, but he has emerged as a kingmaker by carrying the votes Lapid would need to secure a parliamentary majority.
The former defence minister said on Monday that if Netanyahu failed to secure a coalition he would work towards a “unity” government, as his top priority was averting a fifth election in less than three years.
In a televised address, he accused the prime minister of “slamming the door” in his face and promised to seek the formation of a broad government spanning the political spectrum to avert another election.
“This is the time to form a unity government,” he said. “The door is open to all parties.”
Netanyahu lashed out at Bennett after Lapid received the mandate, accusing him of “lying”.
“Bennett spoke about a unity government. That’s an attempt to mislead the public. Everyone knows he wants to form a dangerous left-wing government,” Netanyahu charged.
Bennett, a multi-millionaire tech entrepreneur, is widely regarded as a right-winger who backs Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.
Lapid was backed on Wednesday by much of the so-called “change” bloc, receiving endorsements from left-wing Labor, centre-left Meretz and from the hawkish but fiercely anti-Netanyahu Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman.
Blue and White, led by Defence Minister Benny Gantz, also backed Lapid again.
New Hope, a party of Likud defectors that holds six Knesset seats, endorsed Lapid after abstaining during Rivlin’s last round of consultations.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Jerusalem, said that, on the one hand, people in Israel are “extremely tired and fed up of this never-ending saga”.
“On the other hand, there has been a non-functioning government for two years – with all sorts of crises, and emergencies, the lack of budget. There are impacts from this and people want to see it resolved.”
Reaching a final deal will not be easy, requiring agreements from some seven parties with vastly different agendas, in addition to support from one of two Arab parties.
A poll released on Wednesday by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 70 percent of Israelis believe the coalition talks will fail and a new vote will be called.
Netanyahu has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, with the last four elections all seen as a referendum on his rule. He has been desperate to remain in office while he stands trial, using his position to lash out at prosecutors and seek possible immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and bribery in a series of scandals. The trial has moved into the witness phase, with embarrassing testimony accusing him of trading favours with a powerful media mogul.
Netanyahu denies the charges, accusing law enforcement, the judiciary and the media of waging a “witch hunt” against him.
Al Jazeera’s Fawcett said Netanyahu would “doubtless try to scupper this potential coalition”, perhaps by trying to bring Bennett back on board or by trying to delay the process.
“So things are far from over, but Netanyahu is in much greater danger than he has been at any stage of this crisis.”