FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a speech to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel’s general election at his Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem March 24, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
May 5, 2021
By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel’s president on Wednesday chose Yair Lapid, a centrist politician and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strongest rival, to try to form a new government, but his path to success was still uncertain.
Israel’s longest serving leader, Netanyahu, 71, has been fighting to hold onto office through four inconclusive elections since 2019.
President Reuven Rivlin, in a televised address announcing his choice of Lapid, said the former finance minister had the pledged support of 56 of parliament’s 120 members, still short of a majority.
“It is clear that parliament member Yair Lapid could form a government that has the confidence of the Knesset, despite there being many difficulties,” Rivlin said.
The most recent vote on March 23, held while Netanyahu is also on trial for corruption charges he denies, yielded no majority for the prime minister or for a loose alliance of rivals from across the political spectrum aiming to topple him.
A 28-day mandate to put together a coalition ran out at midnight after Netanyahu failed to agree terms with potential right-wing partners, opening the way for Rivlin to assign the task to another member of parliament.
Lapid, 57, also has 28 days to try to form a coalition. He made no immediate comment after Rivlin’s announcmement, and Netanyahu, who last lost an election before the turn of the century, was due to make his own address later in the day.
A power-sharing agreement to end the political stalemate has been widely mooted, in which Lapid would rotate in office with ultranationalist Naftali Bennett, 49, of the Yamina party.
Rivlin met the two separately on Wednesday, and each put his own name forward to lead coalition talks, the president said.
“I have just spoken to Yair Lapid and informed him that I am entrusting him with forming a government, whether this is a government that he will head at the beginning, or a government headed by someone else first in which he will serve as alternate prime minister,” Rivlin said in his address.
Lapid heads the Yesh Atid party, which finished second with 17 parliamentary seats to 30 for Netanyahu’s Likud in the March election.
After seeing Rivlin, Bennett went on television to appeal to Netanyahu’s current right-wing and religious allies to join a “national unity government”, saying he wanted to avoid a new election.
There was no guarantee that a potential patchwork coalition of left-wing, centrist and rightist parties outside Netanyahu’s caretaker government could bridge their deep political differences and unseat him.
Netanyahu and his opponents have both courted the support of parties representing Israel’s 21% Arab minority, potentially giving them a say over a cabinet for the first time in decades.
Five of the Joint Arab List’s six legislators threw their support behind Lapid in a letter which the party sent to Rivlin on Wednesday, backing which the president noted in his speech.
But that would still leave Lapid short of a parliamentary majority, unless Bennett’s party partnered with him, too.
Much of the impasse results from Netanyahu’s legal troubles: some prospective allies have pledged not to serve under a prime minister who is on trial.
Failure to break the deadlock would lead to a new election, adding to political turmoil while Israel faces challenges from Iran’s nuclear programme and pursues economic recovery after a swift rollout of COVID-19 vaccine.
(Reporting by Jeffrey HellerEditing by Rami Ayyub, William Maclean)