Opposition leader invited to form government after Netanyahu misses deadline

Yair Lapid faces a difficult to task to put together a coalition.

Israel Politics
Israel Politics

Israel’s president has invited 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 a day after Mr Netanyahu failed to cobble together a governing coalition by a midnight deadline.

Mr Rivlin spent the day consulting with all of the parties elected to Israel’s parliament and announced late on Wednesday that he believes Mr Lapid has the best chance of forming a coalition.

Israel Politics
Mr Netanyahu has been PM for the last 12 years (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Mr Rivlin said that based on the recommendations “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”.

Mr Lapid, whose late father was a cabinet minister and who himself is a veteran journalist and politician, has four weeks to reach a deal with potential partners.

While he faces a difficult task, he has the chance to make history by ending the rule of Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Mr Netanyahu has held the post for a total of 15 years, including the last 12.

“It looks like, perhaps within a few days or a few weeks, we might have a functioning coalition that will not include Mr Netanyahu. This will be a ground-breaking change,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank.

He acknowledged, however, that “a fifth consecutive election is still, unfortunately, a real possibility”.

Mr Lapid, 57, entered parliament in 2013 after a successful career as a newspaper columnist, TV anchor and author.

His new Yesh Atid party ran a successful campaign, landing Mr Lapid the powerful post of finance minister.

But he and Mr Netanyahu did not get along, and the coalition quickly crumbled.

Yesh Atid has been in opposition since 2015 elections. The party is popular with secular, middle-class voters and has been critical of Mr 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 Arab party, Mr Netanyahu was unable to close a deal.

Mr Rivlin, whose post is mostly ceremonial, is responsible for designating a party leader to form a government after each election.

He gave Mr 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 Mr Rivlin not to choose another candidate and instead ask parliament to decide upon a prime minister.

In a statement, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party said such a move “will save another period of uncertainty for the state of Israel”.

But Mr Rivlin rejected the proposal, saying it would “bring us to fifth elections without exhausting all options to forming a government”.

Mr 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.

Israel Politics
Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina Party, arrives to meet Reuvin Rivlin in Jerusalem (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Under the proposal, the two men would share the prime minister’s job in a rotation, with Mr Bennett holding the post first.

Mr Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally turned rival, controls just seven seats in parliament, but he has emerged as a kingmaker by carrying the votes Mr Lapid would need to secure a parliamentary majority.

In a televised address, Mr Bennett accused the prime minister of “slamming the door” in his face and vowed 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.”

“I can’t promise we will succeed in forming such a government,” he added. “I do promise we will try.”

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