TEL AVIV, Israel – The Israeli President has appointed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lead the party in an attempt to concoct a ruling majority.
Reuven Rivlin’s announcement in Jerusalem on Tuesday pushed forward twin dramas about the country’s future and Netanyahu’s plight as his corruption trial resumed across the city.
The charges against Israel’s longest-serving prime minister posed an extraordinary choice for the country’s president on whether “morality” should be a determining factor in who should run the government.
The March 23 election revolved around whether Netanyahu is fit to continue serving. His Likud party won the most seats, but neither party won the ruling 61-seat majority in the Knesset. This gave Rivlin the task of deciding who has the best chance of forming a coalition.
Netanyahu denies all charges and says prosecutors are trying to undermine voter intent and oust him from office.
The move came as Netanyahu’s trial reopened on a day that could shed light on who, if any, can lead the shattered government after his fourth election in two years.
The vote on March 23 revolved around whether Israel’s longest-serving prime minister remains fit to continue in the post. It failed to produce a ruling majority in the 120-seat Knesset, leaving Rivlin to choose a party leader most likely to form a coalition. Parliament was due to be sworn in later Tuesday.
Netanyahu was not expected to appear in court on Tuesday, but his increasingly strained future lay in both arenas.
In politics, his Likud party won the most seats in the election, but failed to secure a majority.
In court, where he faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in three separate cases, the outlook was not rosy. 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.
While a decision could take months or even years, the process is expected to take place up to three days a week, an embarrassing and time-consuming distraction that is sure to amplify calls for Netanyahu to step down.
A few miles away, Rivlin consulted with the various parties elected to parliament before choosing a candidate to form a new government. The talks risked plunging the country into an unprecedented fifth consecutive election.
Israeli media reported that Rivlin was considering another factor hinting at Netanyahu’s legal difficulties. In a meeting with Likud, Rivlin said that “there could be a moral element in choosing a prime minister,” but he was unsure whether that factor fell to him or to the Supreme Court.
While Netanyahu and his main rival, Yair Lapid, have not won the support of a majority of lawmakers, Rivlin faces the difficult task of choosing the leader most likely to form a ruling coalition with 61 votes.
Late Wednesday, Lapid called on the country’s anti-Netanyahu factions – a patchwork of parties with great ideological differences – to put aside their differences and form a unity government. He said he even offered Naftali Bennett, leader of a small right-wing party, a power-sharing rotation, with Bennett first serving as prime minister.
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“Anyone who has seen Netanyahu’s reckless performance today understands that he cannot continue with his work,” Lapid said Tuesday.
Netanyahu spent part of Monday in court, where the evidentiary phase of his trial took place. The session 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 for telecoms company Bezeq in return for positive coverage on the 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.
In his televised statement, Netanyahu accused prosecutors of conducting a “witch hunt” against him.
The interwoven political question hovered. Rivlin has until midnight Wednesday to choose a prime minister-designate who would have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If he feels there is no clear choice, he could also send the matter directly to the Knesset, ordering lawmakers to choose a member as prime minister or force a new election.