Netanyahu Tries to Form Last-Minute Coalition as Midnight Deadline Looms

JERUSALEM, Israel – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has until midnight Tuesday to put together a new government coalition. If he fails to do so, his political rivals could potentially unseat him for the first time in 12 years.

Netanyahu has struggled to wrestle together a parliamentary majority following the May 23 election, when Israelis flocked to the polls for the fourth time in two years with the hopes of bringing an end to their nation’s political stalemate. The election ended in another political deadlock, with neither Netanyahu, nor his rivals – a diverse bloc of parties from Israel’s right, left and center – able to secure enough seats to form a clear majority.

If Netanyahu’s last-minute negotiations and politicking can’t secure him a majority coalition by midnight, the matter returns to President Reuven Rivlin.

But a failure to reach a deal does not automatically push Netanyahu out of office. Rivlin may decide to give him another two weeks to form a majority coalition or give one of Netanyahu’s opponents the opportunity to form a government. Lastly, the president might send the matter directly to parliament and ask lawmakers to choose who will be the country’s next prime minister.

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If all of this fails, Israelis will head back to the polls for a fifth election in the fall.

Netanyahu was selected by Israel’s president to form a government after the May 23 election because his Likud party emerged as the largest single party in Israel’s 120-seat parliament. Netanyahu’s Likud party won 30 seats in the election, but Netanyahu needs at least 61 to form a parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu’s efforts to build a government have been complicated by members of his own right-wing base.

The New Hope party, led by a former Netanyahu aide, refuses to serve under the prime minister because of deep fractures in their relationship. The far-right Religious Zionism party supports Netanyahu but refuses to join a government supported by the Arab Islamist partners he has courted. 

On Monday, Netanyahu offered to share the role of prime minister with Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party. Netanyahu offered to step aside and allow Bennett to serve as prime minister first in a rotation deal.

Bennett responded: “I never asked Netanyahu to be prime minister. I asked to form a government. Unfortunately, he does not have that.”

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s rivals have held meetings of their own in an effort to come up with an alternate government. One potential outcome, is a unity government that includes parties from the right, left, and center.

“If Netanyahu doesn’t manage to form a government, we will form a unity government,” Bennett added, referring to a government coalition with centrist, left-wing and right-wing parties. “The most destructive thing for Israel is more elections.”

But it is unclear if Netanyahu’s opponents can cobble together such a government. The opposition includes vast ideological differences that have little in common except for their hostility towards Netanyahu.

Amid all of this, Netanyahu is simultaneously facing an ongoing criminal corruption trial. The prime minister has been charged with breach of trust, bribery, and fraud. Netanyahu denies all the charges and claims he is the victim of a witch hunt.

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