Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid was tasked Wednesday to form a government after veteran premier Benjamin Netanyahu failed to cobble a coalition following a fourth inconclusive vote in under two years.
President Reuven Rivlin tapped Lapid in an announcement that could end the Netanyahu era in Israeli politics. The move followed consultations with party leaders to determine if any lawmaker had a path to clinch a coalition capable of ending an unprecedented era of political gridlock.
Lapid, a centrist former television anchor, said Israel was “hurting… after two years of political paralysis”, and that he would aim to end Netanyahu’s divisive tenure by establishing a unity government that proves Israelis “don’t hate one another”.
“A unity government isn’t a compromise or a last resort — it’s a goal, it’s what we need,” Lapid said following Rivlin’s announcement.
Rivlin noted that Lapid might seek a deal in which another lawmaker serves first as prime minister, as part of a compromise rotational coalition.
Lapid had previously confirmed that he offered such an arrangement to Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious-nationalist Yamina party.
Rivlin, for his part, said he believed Lapid “could form a government that has the confidence of the Knesset (parliament), despite there being many difficulties”.
Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party finished first in the March 23 election, helping the divisive premier earn a 28-day mandate to negotiate a government.
But that mandate expired at midnight (2100 GMT) on Tuesday and Netanyahu informed Rivlin he had been unable to secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Netanyahu’s failure further highlighted deep fractures in the Israeli electorate, which spread its support across the political spectrum, including far-right Jewish extremists and a conservative Islamic party.
Bennett the kingmaker
Rivlin met Wednesday with both Lapid and Bennett, who has become a kingmaker despite Yamina controlling only seven parliamentary seats.
Bennett backed himself for prime minister in his presidency meeting but later reiterated he was open to negotiations on a unity government as his main priority was avoiding the fifth election.
Bennett was once a Netanyahu ally and served as his defence minister but their relationship has disintegrated.
During Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial where the 71-year-old premier is accused of trading regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage, the court heard testimony about Netanyahu’s alleged obsession with smearing Bennett.
Netanyahu lashed out at Bennett after Lapid received the mandate, accusing him of “lying” as he relentlessly pursued his ambition to become prime minister.
“Bennett spoke about a unity government. That’s an attempt to mislead the public. Everyone knows he wants to form a dangerous left-wing government,” Netanyahu charged.
Bennett, a multi-millionaire tech entrepreneur, is widely regarded as a right-winger who backs Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.
Lapid was backed Wednesday by much of the so-called “change” bloc, receiving endorsements from left-wing Labor, centre-left Meretz and from the hawkish but fiercely anti-Netanyahu Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman.
Blue and White, led by Defence Minister Benny Gantz, also backed Lapid again.
New Hope, a party of Likud defectors that holds six Knesset seats, endorsed Lapid after abstaining during Rivlin’s last round of consultations.
To some supporters of the right, Lapid’s backing from Yamina and New Hope, who refuse to join a Netanyahu coalition, could indicate “the end of the era of Netanyahu as a prime minister,” political analyst Eran Vigoda-Gadot said.
“Netanyahu is a problem for the right, not an asset,” said Vigoda-Gadot, a Haifa university professor.
Likud, its ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies and the far-right Religious Zionism faction all asked Rivlin to give the Knesset a 21-day window to nominate a candidate to be prime minister.
Because the Knesset was unlikely to break the impasse, that was seen as a tactic to force a fifth election, opening another window for Netanyahu to retain power.
Rivlin said giving the “mandate to the Knesset would be a misapplication of the law and could result in the fifth round of elections before all possibilities for forming a government had been exhausted”.
Lapid has conceded that an ideologically divided government forged largely through opposition against Netanyahu “wouldn’t be perfect”, but would serve the national interest while achieving the goal of ousting a divisive prime minister in power for a record 12 consecutive years.
A poll released Wednesday by the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, however, showed that 70 per cent of Israelis believe the coalition talks will fail and a new vote will be called.