JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced midnight on Tuesday to form a new coalition government – or consider bringing his Likud party into opposition for the first time in 12 years.
Netanyahu has been fighting to secure a parliamentary majority since March 23 – when elections ended in a dead end for the fourth time in a row in two years. Despite repeated meetings with many of his rivals and unprecedented contact with the leader of a small Islamist Arab party, Netanyahu failed to make a deal through a four-week window.
That window was due to expire at midnight, after which the matter was returned to President Reuven Rivlin in the absence of an agreement.
Failure to reach a deal would not immediately push Netanyahu out of the office.
Rivlin could give him an additional two weeks to form a coalition. He could allow one of Netanyahu̵
This would give MPs a chance to elect one of their own as prime minister. If all options fail, the country will face new elections this fall, marking months of continued political paralysis.
In the March 23 election, Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest single party with 30 seats in the 120-member parliament. But to form a government, he must receive the support of a 61-seat majority.
This task is greatly complicated by members of its own religious and nationalist base.
The New Hope party, led by a former Netanyahu aide, has refused to serve the prime minister due to deep personal differences. Religious Zionism, a far-right party that openly supports the racist platform, supports Netanyahu but refuses to serve in government with the Arab partners he has courted. Yamina, another right-wing party led by Netanyahu’s former aide, has refused to engage with him or his opponents.
On Monday, Netanyahu said he had offered Yamina leader Naftali Bennett a chance to share the prime minister’s job in rotation, with Bennett holding office for the first year.
Bennett replied: “I never wanted Netanyahu to be prime minister. I wanted to form a government. Unfortunately, he is not there. “
Netanyahu is facing his current corruption case. Netanyahu has been accused of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in a series of scandals. The trial went through a witness phase, with embarrassing testimonies accusing him of trading in the service of a powerful media mogul. Netanyahu denies the allegations.
In recent days, he has become increasingly frustrated, caressing potential partners one day and then attacking them with vitriol the next. Last week’s deadly pressure at a religious festival that killed 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews only complicated his task by creating an unwanted sabotage and calling for a formal investigation into the possible negligence of his watch.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s opponents are holding their own meetings in an attempt to form an alternative government.
Netanyahu also suffered a series of embarrassing – and uncharacteristic – defeats in parliament.
Earlier this month, his opponents gained control of a powerful agreement committee that oversees the legislative program until a new government is formed. Last week, he was forced to drop the appointment of a friend as interim justice minister just before the Supreme Court seemed ready to overturn the move.
Despite all of Netanyahu’s vulnerabilities, it remains unclear whether his opponents can form an alternative government. The opposition includes a wide range of parties that have little in common, except for their hostility to Netanyahu.
If Netanyahu fails to form a coalition by midnight, he will do everything possible to prevent his opponents from reaching an agreement in the coming weeks.
This will keep him in office until the next election, which will allow him to fight corruption allegations from the prime minister’s office and give him another chance to win a new term, along with possible immunity from persecution.