Israel president to tap leader to try to form govt, Netanyahu favoured

Jerusalem (AFP) –


The Israeli president is expected to nominate a candidate Tuesday to try to form a majority government following the latest inconclusive election, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the favourite.

The March 23 election, Israel's fourth in under two years, did not produce a clear path for any candidate to form a coalition capable of commanding a majority in the 120-member parliament, prolonging an unprecedented phase of political gridlock.

On Monday, President Reuvin Rivlin held the traditional round of consultations that follow each Israeli vote, seeking recommendations from Knesset factions on who they want to form a government.

Netanyahu -- whose record 12 consecutive years as prime minister has left Israelis bitterly divided -- emerged in first place.

The veteran premier's right-wing Likud party is the largest faction in parliament after winning 30 seats in last month's election.

Netanyahu can also count on the support of Israel's two ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious parties and the far-right Religious Zionism alliance, which brought his recommendation total to 52.

But as Rivlin was holding his talks, Netanyahu was on trial across the city at Jerusalem District Court, charged with accepting improper gifts and illegally trading regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

In the prosecution's opening arguments and testimony from its first witness, Netanyahu was accused of using his influence to ensure the popular Walla site portrayed him favourably while smearing his rivals.

Rivlin, whose antipathy for Netanyahu is well known, has indicated he may not be guided by just mathematics and could weigh "ethical considerations" before assigning a mandate.

Some analysts have interpreted that as an allusion to Netanyahu's legal troubles, with prosecutors implicating him in "a serious case of government corruption."

- Elusive majority -

The candidate that Rivlin chooses will have 28 days to form a government, which can be extended by a further two weeks.

Even if Netanyahu is tapped, his path to a 61-seat majority is precarious.

To raise his tally above 52, he will likely need support from his estranged former protege, religious-nationalist Naftali Bennett, whose Yamina party controls seven seats.

According to Monday's court testimony, Bennett was a main target of Netanyahu's media smear campaign.

The prime minister will also likely require backing from the Islamic conservative Raam party.

Its leader, Mansour Abbas, has said he is open to dealing with Netanyahu if it helps improve living standards for Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, but Religious Zionism has ruled out sitting with Raam, complicating Netanyahu's coalition prospects.

- 'Tough decisions' -

Rivlin could make a surprise move and bypass Netanyahu in favour of opposition leader Yair Lapid, a former television presenter who leads the centrist Yesh Atid party.

Lapid earned 45 endorsements on Monday, seven short of Netanyahu.

There were 16 abstentions, while Yamina backed its leader, Bennett.

In an address late Monday, Lapid sought to foster unity in the anti-Netanyahu camp, with a direct appeal to Bennett.

"We need a government of national agreement... to prevent a government led by a criminal suspect," a reference to Netanyahu, who Lapid called "dangerous."

Lapid offered Bennett a revolving premiership in which the Yamina leader would take the first turn, an extraordinary gesture given his 45 prime ministerial endorsements dwarfed Bennett's seven.

"The test for a leader is to take tough decisions in complex situations," Lapid said, arguing that sacrifices would be required to unseat the divisive Netanyahu.

Bennett could still change his position before Rivlin's announcement. He is due to address parliament on Tuesday afternoon, before the new group of 120 lawmakers is sworn in.

If the first choice of prime minister fails to form a majority government, Rivlin will likely turn to the next name on his list.

If neither Netanyahu nor his rivals manage to form a government, voters could be asked to return to the polls for a fifth election in barely two years.