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Israeli president taps opposition leader to form government

Former journalist Yair Lapid has 28 days to persuade a majority of the 120-seat Parliament to support him, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed in the task

Yair Lapid, the former finance minister and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party.
Yair Lapid, the former finance minister and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party.Dan Balilty/NYT

JERUSALEM — Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the Israeli opposition, was asked Wednesday to try to form a coalition government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to do so by a Tuesday deadline.

Lapid has 28 days to persuade a majority of the 120-seat Parliament to support him after the president, Reuven Rivlin, gave him the mandate to begin coalition negotiations.

If he cannot cobble together a government, the country could face another election this summer — its fifth general election in a little more than two years. Until there is a new government, Netanyahu stays on as caretaker prime minister.

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In the March election campaign, Lapid, 57, ran on a promise to preserve checks and balances and to prevent Netanyahu from remaining in office at the head of a right-wing, religious alliance that seeks to curb the power of the judiciary.

Lapid’s entry to the spotlight is the latest twist in a two-year political stalemate that has seen Israelis trudge to the polls four times since 2019, each time electing a Parliament whose lawmakers are roughly evenly split between supporters and opponents of Netanyahu.

The impasse has left political leaders repeatedly unable to form a stable majority, a stalemate that has left the country without a national budget and with several key leadership positions in the civil service unfilled.

It has also forced leaders to search for ever more unlikely alliances.

To secure a coalition, Lapid has previously said he would be willing to share power with an ultranationalist rival, Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader who opposes Palestinian statehood and seeks to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank. The divisions and complexities of Israeli politics currently make it impossible for Lapid to win office without reaching a compromise with parts of the far-right.

In a statement Wednesday, Lapid again hinted he would be willing to work across ideological lines.

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“After two years of political paralysis, Israeli society is hurting,” he said. “A unity government isn’t a compromise or a last resort — it’s a goal, it’s what we need. We need a government that will reflect the fact that we don’t hate one another.”

His party, Yesh Atid, Hebrew for “There Is A Future,” came second in the general election in March with 17 seats, behind Netanyahu’s right-wing party, Likud, with 30 seats.

Lapid will need to persuade an ideologically incoherent array of other parties to set aside their differences to form an alliance of 61 lawmakers, the minimum for a parliamentary majority.

Such an alliance might have to encompass far-right lawmakers who reject a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, left-wing parties that support a two-state solution, Arab nationalists and Islamists — none of them natural political bedfellows.

Lapid’s success will rest on their shared desire to oust Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for corruption — charges Netanyahu denies. His critics consider the longstanding prime minister a threat to the rule of law.

Lapid is a charismatic former journalist and television host who turned to politics in 2012. He served as finance minister in a Netanyahu-led coalition in 2013, when he was best known for reforming the subsidy system that gives financial support to ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who study religious texts instead of entering the labor market. Subsequent governments reversed most of these measures.

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To remove Netanyahu from office, Lapid said last month he would be willing to rotate the prime ministership with Bennett, the ultranationalist, and even allow Bennett to go first, even though Bennett’s party, Yamina, or “Right,” won only seven seats.

On Wednesday night, Rivlin said there was nothing to stop Lapid from forming such an arrangement.

“I am giving him the mandate to form the government, whether this is a government he heads at first, or whether this is a government another candidate heads at first,” Rivlin said.

Bennett, 49, is a former director general of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, though he does not live there. Until January, he was part of a political alliance with Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right leader.

A former elite commando and software entrepreneur, Bennett once worked in the high-tech industry in New York, where his wife worked as a pastry chef. He served as chief of staff for Netanyahu before breaking with the leader a decade ago and founding his own party.

He has served as a Cabinet minister in Netanyahu-led coalitions, most recently as defense minister. This week, Netanyahu made a last-gasp effort to remain in government by offering Bennett a power-sharing deal in which, like the deal proposed by Lapid, Bennett would go first as prime minister.

But Bennett rejected it because the proposed alliance would still not have commanded a parliamentary majority. Netanyahu again asked for Bennett’s support Wednesday night, even after Lapid was tasked with forming a government.

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Right-wing parties hold a majority in Parliament but have been unable to form a functional government over the past two years because they are divided between those who support Netanyahu and those who believe he should resign to focus on his corruption trial.

That split has redrawn the Israeli political map — as political ideology has become defined more by perceptions of Netanyahu than by economic policy or approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.