JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu missed the midnight deadline on Tuesday to form a new ruling coalition, citing the possibility that his Likud party could be pushed into opposition for the first time in 12 years.
The deadline closed a four-week window granted to Netanyahu by the Israeli president. The matter now falls to President Reuven Rivlin, who announced just after midnight that he would contact the 13 parties with seats in parliament on Wednesday to discuss “continuing the process of forming a government”.
Rivlin is expected to give one of Netanyahu’s opponents a chance in the next few days to form an alternative coalition government. He could also ask parliament to choose one of its own members as prime minister. If all else fails, the country would be forced into another election this fall – the fifth in just over two years.
The turmoil does not mean that Netanyahu will be immediately kicked out of his post as prime minister. But now he faces a serious threat to his long reign as his corruption trial shifts into high gear. His opponents, despite deep ideological differences, have already had informal talks in recent weeks in the hope of forging a power-sharing deal.
Netanyahu had struggled to secure a parliamentary majority since March 23 – when the elections ended in a deadlock for the fourth time in a row in the past two years. Despite repeated encounters with many of his rivals and unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party, Netanyahu was unable to strike a deal.
Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first chance to form a coalition after 52 lawmakers approved him as prime minister last month. It was far from a majority, but the highest number for any party leader.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who has received the backing of 45 lawmakers, now appears to be the candidate most likely to have a shot at forming a government.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the small religious nationalist Yamina party, is also a possibility. Bennett, a former ally of Netanyahu turned rival, controls just seven seats in parliament, but has become something of a kingmaker and appears to be carrying the votes Lapid would need to secure a parliamentary majority.
Lapid has previously said he’s ready to share the Prime Minister’s job with Bennett, with Bennett serving as the first in a rotation. So far, they have not reached any firm deal.
In a brief statement, Netanyahu’s Likud blamed Bennett for the prime minister’s failure.
“Due to Bennett’s refusal to engage in a right-wing government, which would certainly have led to the formation of a government with other members of the Knesset, Prime Minister Netanyahu returned the mandate to the president,” indicates the press release.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, called on opponents of Netanyahu to line up behind Lapid.
“The Israeli people have taken one hit after another: pandemic, unemployment, horrific politics, loss of leadership confidence and deep polarization,” he said. “We can fix everything in a few hours. It is our duty to form a government as quickly as possible for the good of the State of Israel and all of its citizens. “
Netanyahu has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, with the last four elections all seen as a referendum on his rule. He desperately wanted to stay in office while he was on trial, using his position to attack prosecutors and seek possible immunity from prosecution.
Most of its struggles stemmed from obstacles created by former allies in its own religious and nationalist base.
The New Hope Party, led by a former aide to Netanyahu, refused to serve under the prime minister due to deep personal differences. Religious Zionism, a far-right party that espouses an openly racist platform, has supported Netanyahu but has ruled out serving in a government with the Arab partners he has courted.
Bennett, who has had a strained relationship with Netanyahu, was unable to make any deal with his former mentor.
His corruption trial looms over Netanyahu. Netanyahu has been accused of fraud, breach of trust and corruption in a series of scandals. The trial has entered the witness phase, with embarrassing testimony accusing him of exchanging favors with a powerful media mogul. Netanyahu denies the charges.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu had appeared increasingly frustrated, pampering potential partners one day, then lashing out at vitriolic the next.
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Last week’s deadly stampede at a religious holiday, in which 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews were killed, only made it more difficult by creating an unwanted diversion and calling for an official investigation into a possible negligence on his part.
Netanyahu also suffered a series of embarrassing – and unusual – defeats in parliament. On Tuesday, Likud failed to push forward a proposal calling for the direct election of the prime minister. Opponents had criticized the measure as Netanyahu’s desperate attempt to find a new way to retain power.
Despite all of Netanyahu’s vulnerabilities, it is still unclear whether his opponents can form an alternative government.
The opposition includes a wide range of parties that have little in common except their animosity towards Netanyahu. He is expected to do everything possible in the coming weeks to prevent his opponents from making a deal.
If they fail, he would remain in office until the next election. This would give him several months to fight his corruption charges from the perch of the prime minister’s office and give him another chance to win a new term, as well as possible immunity.