Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deadline to form a government expired at midnight Tuesday-Wednesday with the Likud leader unable to cobble together a coalition, possibly drawing the country closer to the end of over 12 straight years of being ruled by the Likud leader.
However, the rival bloc of parties could also fail to muster a 61-strong majority, which would mean Netanyahu continues as transitional prime minister for the time being.
The Likud said Netanyahu had formally returned the government-forming mandate to President Reuven Rivlin, who has three days to decide how best to proceed. The president can give the mandate to another MK, such as Yesh Atid party chairman Lapid or possibly Yamina’s Naftali Bennett. He could also send the mandate to the Knesset, which would have 21 days to find a candidate backed by 61 or more of the 120 MKs; if that fails, Israel will automatically head to its fifth election since April 2019.
Hebrew media reports citing senior political sources have speculated that Lapid will be given the next opportunity to form a government, as he had the second most recommendations after Netanyahu in the first round of talks. The Likud leader was given the first opportunity to cobble together a coalition on April 6, after receiving 52 recommendations versus Lapid’s 45.
However, Bennett has been in talks with party leaders, including Netanyahu, aimed at convincing them to update their recommendations to back him instead. Yamina hopes to receive the backing of Likud, Religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties. This would give Bennett 59 recommendations, surpassing Lapid.
However, analysts speculated that Rivlin is not guaranteed to grant the Yamina chair the mandate in such a scenario, as the right-wing bloc already had a chance to form a government and failed to do so. If, however, Bennett manages to convince the Islamist Ra’am party to back him as well, he would then have 63 recommendations and Rivlin would likely have no choice but to hand him the mandate.
Netanyahu’s Likud party was therefore reportedly working Tuesday to convince various parties to back Bennett to be tasked with forming a government, a prospect that would keep alive Netanyahu’s hopes of a rotation deal with the Yamina leader.
While Bennett could, in theory, gain more recommendations than Lapid, Rivlin is reportedly considering skipping another set of consultations with the parties, as is his right, and making a decision primarily based on the first round.
Channel 12 news on Tuesday quoted unnamed senior officials, who were said to have recently spoken with Rivlin, saying that the president will therefore not task Bennett with forming a government.
According to the network, Rivlin is expected to quickly decide what to do when Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires at midnight, possibly as soon as Wednesday.
Instead of direct consultations with party leaders, the president’s chief of staff is expected to make a round of calls to party representatives, the report said.
Bennett has urged the establishment of a right-wing government and has said that he will back a Netanyahu-led government on condition that it has a majority in the Knesset; otherwise, he has said he will back a unity government with the so-called “change bloc” that has vowed to oust the prime minister.
Lapid has spent the past several weeks galvanizing the support of the change bloc — which consists of Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, New Hope, Labor and Meretz — but has also been in talks with additional parties including Yamina, Ra’am and the Joint List whose support he’ll need to swear in a government.
While Lapid’s party won 17 seats in the March election, he has said he is prepared to allow Bennett to serve first as premier in a rotational agreement, despite Yamina only having won seven seats.
Speaking at his Yesh Atid party’s faction meeting on Monday, Lapid said that he was unwilling to relinquish the presidential mandate to Bennett and expected to be tasked with forming a government by Rivlin.
“I will not give up the mandate to Bennett. I see the tricks that are being done and I hope the president doesn’t enable it,” Lapid said, apparently referring to Netanyahu’s offer to Bennett of a premiership rotation deal. “We will go with Bennett and try to form a government.”
At the same time, Lapid confirmed he was still willing to let Bennett be first in a premiership rotation deal between the two.
“The foundations are ready. We can form a government. In one more day, if nothing surprising happens, we will be faced with two options: an Israeli national unity government, solid, decent and hard-working. Or fifth elections,” he said.