JERUSALEM – The Israeli president on Tuesday asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to form a new coalition government, offering him a possible path to stay in power even as he stands on trial for corruption.
It will not be easy and success is by no means guaranteed given the lingering divisions that have led to a political stalemate, which has only worsened year by year.
As the country remains divided along the traditional fault lines of secular and religious supporters, right and left, and Jews and Arabs, the main rift increasingly revolves around the polarizing figure of Mr. Netanyahu himself. He was given the green light to form a new government a day after the opening of the evidence phase of his trial on charges of corruption, fraud and breach of trust.
A political survivor and longest-serving Israeli prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu has spent the past 12 years in power. But after four inconclusive elections in two years, he and his allies have failed to garner enough support to secure a parliamentary majority that could decisively end the country’s political stalemate.
Mr. Netanyahu now has 28 days to attempt to concoct a coalition that could command a majority of at least 61 in the 120-seat parliament, with the possibility of a further 14-day extension. In the event of failure, the president, Reuven Rivlin, could mandate another candidate or return the choice of a candidate to the Parliament.
In last month’s election, Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud became the largest party, with 30 seats. With its allies in the right-wing and religious camps, it has 52 seats. It doesn’t achieve a majority, but still gives him a better chance than any of his opponents to form a ruling coalition.
Yet even Mr. Rivlin expressed doubts about Mr. Netanyahu’s chances of success, a day after meeting with representatives of the 13 parties elected to parliament and receiving their recommendations for the post of prime minister.
“The results of the consultations, which were open to all, lead me to believe that no candidate has a realistic chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of Parliament,” Rivlin said in a televised speech on Tuesday. But, he added, “The law obliges me to entrust one of the candidates with the formation of a government.”
In order to form the kind of “full-fledged right-wing government,” Netanyahu promised his constituents the prime minister would need the support of another small right-wing party that has been sitting on the fence. He would also need the far-right flank of his potential coalition to agree to count on the support of a small Islamist Arab party that has become a potential kingmaker.
So far, Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right partners have rejected this proposal. The other option is for Mr. Netanyahu to court deserters from the opposite camp.
“We will have to be creative,” said Danny Danon, a former Likud minister who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. “Everything will be on the table. People will have to be flexible, ”he said,“ including Netanyahu ”.
Mr. Netanyahu’s trial began in May and he has denied the charges against him. Nothing in the current law prevents an indicted prime minister from remaining in office.
But the spectacle of a sitting prime minister appearing as a defendant in court is a painful precedent for Israel, and critics have argued that an indicted candidate should not be allowed to form a new government.
Mr. Rivlin referred to the legal and constitutional debate shaking Israel, saying he was well aware of the criticisms.
“The question of giving the role to a candidate facing criminal charges has been one of the intense political and public disagreements over recent election campaigns,” he said. But as the president, who represents all Israelis, he said he should stay away from the argument.
“It is the role of Parliament to rule on the substantive and ethical question of the suitability of a candidate facing criminal charges to become Prime Minister,” he added.
Beyond the 30 seats in Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, the remaining 90 parliamentary seats are distributed among a dozen other parties. Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party came in second, with 17 seats. All others are numbered with a single digit.
“The president fulfilled his duty and he had no choice”, Mr. Lapid said shortly after Mr. Netanyahu was tasked with trying to form the government. “But giving the mandate to Netanyahu is a shameful disgrace that tarnishes Israel and brings shame on our status as a law-abiding state,” he added.
The anti-Netanyahu political bloc has so far proved too incoherent to act together to topple Mr. Netanyahu. It is made up of parties with contradictory agendas and some have ruled out sitting in a government with others.