Israel's Netanyahu faces midnight deadline to form government

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a midnight deadline Tuesday to form a government, a daunting task that would likely require convincing the Jewish far right to cooperate with an Islamic party.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, was given a 28-day window to forge a majority coalition following a March 23 general election, Israel's fourth inconclusive vote in less than two years.

The prime minister's right-wing Likud party won the most seats in the vote, but as results came in on election day, it became clear that he would again struggle to secure a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

Over the past month, Israeli media have been rife with speculation about possible deals that could see Netanyahu extend his record 12 consecutive years in power.

But hours before his negotiating window was due to expire at 2100 GMT, the core obstacles facing the 71-year-old premier remained largely unchanged since the morning after the vote.

A coalition will require coming to terms with his estranged former protege Naftali Bennett, leader of the hawkish Yamina party.

It will also require persuading the far-right Religious Zionism alliance to tacitly cooperate with the Islamic conservative Raam party.

- 'End of Zionism' -

Religious Zionism has vowed not to sit in such a coalition.

Orit Strok, a lawmaker from the party who lives in a settlement in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, told army radio that sitting with Raam would "bring a Trojan horse into the government of Israel" and mean "the end of Zionism."

Netanyahu said Thursday that he had offered Bennett to serve as premier ahead of him if that would help maintain the right's hold on power.

Bennett immediately replied that he never asked Netanyahu for the opportunity to be prime minister.

"I asked him to form a government, which, unfortunately, he cannot do," Bennett said.

Political scientist Gayil Talshir of Hebrew University said a Netanyahu-Bennett arrangement was doomed because it would require support from Likud defector Gideon Saar, whose New Hope party won six seats.

Saar has maintained that he is committed to ousting Netanyahu.

"Bennett did not say no to (Netanyahu's) offer, he just said it's not realistic," Talshir told AFP.

As his coalition talks faced roadblocks, Netanyahu has also floated the idea of passing legislation that would enable direct election of a prime minister.

He would need 61 Knesset votes to do it, unlikely given the election results, but Talshir said: "This is what Netanyahu tries to do now, to get the legislation passed."

- Eyes on Lapid? -

Netanyahu has a reputation as a political survivor and may yet have more moves to make.

"This is a day for people with strong nerves," political commentator Sima Kadmon wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

"As always, nobody knows what trick Netanyahu intends to pull out of his hat at the last minute."

Barring a breakthrough before midnight, President Reuven Rivlin can reclaim the mandate.

He could give opposition leader Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party finished second in the March vote, 28 days to try to form a government, or he could ask parliament to recommend its own candidate for the premiership.

"It's time for a new government," Lapid said Tuesday.

"In one more day, if nothing happens, we will be faced with two options: an Israeli national unity government, solid, decent and hard working, or a fifth election."

The coalition deadline comes just days after 45 mainly ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrims were killed in a stampede in Mount Meron in northern Israel.

A government investigation has been opened into the tragedy, called one of Israel's worst peacetime disasters.

Lapid said it was "preventable," assigning blame in part to the fact that Israel "does not have a functioning government."