Israel president eyes new candidate to form government

Jerusalem (AFP) –


The Israeli president met with party leaders Wednesday to determine if any lawmaker can form a government to end an unprecedented gridlock after veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed.

Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party finished first in the March 23 election, Israel's fourth inconclusive vote in less than two years, helping the divisive premier earn a 28-day mandate to negotiate a government.

But that mandate expired at 2100 GMT on Tuesday and Netanyahu informed President Reuven Rivlin he had been unable to secure a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

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.

Rivlin, whose largely ceremonial role has taken on outsized prominence amid the seemingly endless cycle of elections, has voiced doubt any lawmaker could form a government.

But several political experts on Wednesday predicted he would give a chance to opposition leader Yair Lapid, a former television anchor whose centrist Yesh Atid party finished second in the March vote.

Rivlin met Wednesday with Lapid and Naftali Bennett, a religious right-winger who has become a closely-watched kingmaker, despite his Yamina party controlling only seven parliament seats.

- Lapid-Bennett deal? -

Bennett was once a close 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.

Bennett said Monday that he would have struck a deal with Netanyahu but concluded the prime minister could not clinch a coalition.

Israeli media have watched for hints of a brewing Lapid-Bennett accord.

Lapid, already supported by much of the anti-Netanyahu bloc, on Wednesday was endorsed by a group of Likud defectors from the New Hope party as the best choice to form a government.

New Hope, led by another former Netanyahu ally, Gideon Saar, abstained during Rivlin's last round of consultations but their shift to Lapid on Wednesday could be a sign of momentum.

Lapid has said that he offered Bennett a rotating prime ministership in which he would take first turn, in the interest of agreeing a government that could end Netanyahu's record 12 straight years in office.

Bennett said Monday that if Netanyahu failed to secure a coalition he would work towards a "unity" government, as his top priority was averting a fifth election in less than three years.

- More moves to make? -

In power from 1996 to 1999 and again since 2009, Netanyahu has acquired a reputation as a political survivor and still has cards to play.

Multiple reports Wednesday indicated his party might try to ensure that Bennett, not Lapid, gets the president's mandate, hopefully sowing discord in the centre-left bloc.

If Rivlin concludes that no lawmaker can form a government, he could throw the issue to parliament, giving it 21 days to nominate a prime minister or call a new election.

A poll released Wednesday by the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank showed that 70 percent of Israelis believe the coalition talks will fail and a new vote will be called.

That could open another door for Netanyahu, who has claimed credit for Israel's largely successful coronavirus vaccination campaign.

Netanyahu and his allies have flirted with legislation to create a direct vote for prime minister, hoping he would emerge victorious in a divided field, but with little success so far.