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Netanyahu gets first crack at forming a new government in Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in December 2020. On Tuesday, he was asked by the president to try to form a new coalition government.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in December 2020. On Tuesday, he was asked by the president to try to form a new coalition government.Yonatan Sindel/POOL/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was asked by the president Tuesday to try to form a new coalition government, offering a possible path for him to remain in office even as he stands trial on corruption charges.

It will not be easy and success is by no means guaranteed given the abiding divisions that have led to a political impasse, which has only worsened year by year.

While the country remains split along the fault lines of secular and religious, right-wing and left-wing, and Jewish and Arab, the main rupture has increasingly revolved around the polarizing figure of Netanyahu himself. He got the nod to form a new government one day after the opening of the evidentiary stage of his trial on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

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A political survivor and Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu has spent the last 12 years in office. But after four inconclusive elections in two years, he and his allies have failed to win enough support to ensure a parliamentary majority that could decisively end the country’s political deadlock.

Netanyahu now has 28 days to try to assemble a coalition that could command a majority of at least 61 in the 120-seat parliament, with the possibility of a 14-day extension. If he fails, President Reuven Rivlin could task another candidate or refer the choice to parliament.

In last month’s election, Netanyahu’s conservative Likud emerged as the largest party, with 30 seats. Together with allies in the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox camps, he has 52 seats. While short of a majority, that total nonetheless gives him a better shot than any opponents at forming a government.

Still, even Rivlin expressed doubts about Netanyahu’s chances of success, a day after the president met with representatives of all 13 parties elected to parliament and received their recommendations for the premiership.

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“The results of the consultations, which were open to all, led me to believe that no candidate has a realistic chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of parliament,” Rivlin said in a televised address. But, he added, “The law obliges me to entrust one of the candidates with forming a government.”

In order to form the kind of “full-on right-wing government” Netanyahu promised his voters, the prime minister would need the support of another small right-wing party that has been sitting on the fence. He would also need the far-right flank of his potential coalition to agree to rely on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party that has become a potential kingmaker.

So far, Netanyahu’s partners on the far right have rejected that proposition. The other option is for Netanyahu to woo defectors from the opposite camp.

On previous occasions, Rivlin has invited the candidate tasked with forming a government to his official residence to sit together for a short conversation and a photo and receive the letter of appointment. But that did not happen this time. Instead, the letter was delivered to Netanyahu. The president’s office did not provide any official reason for the change.

Beyond the 30 seats for Netanyahu’s Likud party, the remaining 90 parliamentary seats are split among a dozen parties. Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party came in second, with 17 seats. All of the others numbered in the single digits.

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“The president fulfilled his duty and he had no choice,” Lapid said shortly after Netanyahu was tasked with trying to form the government. “But giving the mandate to Netanyahu is a shameful disgrace that tarnishes Israel and casts shame on our status as a law-abiding state.”

The anti-Netanyahu political bloc has so far proved too incoherent to act together to unseat Netanyahu. It is made up of parties with clashing agendas and some have ruled out sitting in a government with others.

The new parliament, sworn in Tuesday, is deeply splintered and includes ultraconservatives and ultranationalists who had not been voted in before. One of them, Itamar Ben Gvir, advocates the expulsion of any Arab citizen who is deemed disloyal to Israel. Another, Avi Maoz, leads a small anti-LGBT faction.

Opponents of Netanyahu, including Merav Michaeli, leader of the Labor Party, said they planned to introduce bills aimed at barring a candidate under indictment from becoming prime minister or president, or limiting a prime minister’s terms in office, moves that could stymie the prime minister’s options should the current stalemate lead to a fifth election.