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‘I’m afraid for my country’: Israeli Prez reluctantly gives Netanyahu first crack during government formation

JERUSALEM (AP) – The Israeli President on Tuesday gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the difficult task of trying to form a government out of the country’s shattered parliament, giving the besieged leader a chance to extend his long term as he is tried for corruption.

In his announcement, President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged that no party leader has the backing to form a majority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset. He also noted that many believe Netanyahu is unfit for the post of prime minister in light of his legal issues.

Nonetheless, Rivlin said there is nothing in the law preventing Netanyahu from occupying the post. After consulting with the 13 parties in the newly elected parliament, Rivlin said Netanyahu had the best chance of any candidate to form a new government.

“I decided to give him this task,” Rivlin said from Jerusalem.

“It is not an easy decision morally and ethically,” he added. “The State of Israel should not be taken for granted. And I’m afraid for my country.

With this, Rivlin pushed forward the twin dramas over the country’s future and Netanyahu’s fate, giving Israel’s longest-serving prime minister a chance to try and save his career. Netanyahu now has up to six weeks to attempt to concoct a coalition. If he fails, Rivlin could give another party leader the chance to try to form a government – or the country could be plunged into an unprecedented fifth election in just over two years.

Alex Kolomoisky / Pool via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the front, attends the swearing-in ceremony of Israel’s 24th government, in the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country’s president called on Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions within the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky / Pool via AP)

Netanyahu has the most support – 52 seats – in the Israeli Knesset. But it is still far from the 61 seats needed for a majority. He will likely use his powers of persuasion to try to attract a number of opponents, including former close associates who have vowed never to serve under him again, with generous offers from powerful ministries or legislative committees.

The task will not be easy.

In order to gain a majority, Netanyahu would likely need the support of a small Arab Islamist party, and one of his partners, the religious Zionists, has an openly racist platform and says they will not serve in a government with Arab partners.

“Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government, as it currently appears, are quite low,” said Yohan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

Netanyahu is also likely to need the support of the Yamina, a right-wing party led by a former ally turned rival. Yamina leader Naftali Bennett has had a strained relationship with Netanyahu in recent years. He was also cool for an alliance with the Arab parties.

Bennett on Tuesday called for the formation of a “stable right-wing” government and pledged to negotiate in “good faith”. But he did not pledge to support Netanyahu, who has ruled the country for 12 years.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, admitted that the law left Rivlin “no choice”, but in the same tweet denounced the development as “a shameful shame that tarnishes Israel”.

Lapid offered an alternative: a power-sharing deal with Bennett that would see the two men take the post of prime minister. They are expected to conduct intense negotiations in the coming weeks.

In a sign of the challenge in front of Netanyahu, around 100 protesters on Tuesday hoisted LGBT pride flags and a fake submarine during a noisy protest that could be heard as officials began the swearing-in festivities of the new parliament on a outdoor place. The pride flags appeared to be a reference to the fact that leaders of the ultra-nationalist religious Zionism party, which backs Netanyahu, are openly homophobic, as the sub points to a graft scandal involving the purchase of German submarines.

As the new Knesset was sworn in, Rivlin called for unity in a speech.

“If we don’t learn and find a model of partnership that will allow us to live here together, out of mutual respect, commitment to one another and genuine solidarity, our national resilience will be in real danger.” he said, his voice seeming to tremble with emotion.

Netanyahu’s coalition talks will take place in the shadow of his corruption trial. Although a decision is months, if not years away, the process is expected to take place up to three days a week, an embarrassing and time-consuming distraction that will follow Netanyahu’s appeals to his rivals.

In court, he faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and corruption in three separate cases. The proceedings resumed on Tuesday, although the prime minister did not appear in court.

On Monday, a key witness introduced Netanyahu as an image-obsessed leader who forced a leading news site to help his family and smear opponents.

Netanyahu denies all the charges and, in a nationally televised speech, accused prosecutors of persecuting him in an attempt to remove him from office. “This is what a coup attempt looks like,” he said.

This week’s court proceedings focused on the most serious case against Netanyahu – in which he is accused of promoting regulations that brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to telecoms company Bezeq in return for a positive coverage on the company’s popular news site, Walla.

Ilan Yeshua, Walla’s former editor, described a system in which Bezeq owners Shaul and Iris Elovitch repeatedly pressured him to publish favorable information about Netanyahu and denigrate rivals of the Prime Minister.

The explanation given to him by the couple? “This is what the Prime Minister wanted,” he said.

Kellman reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.

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