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JERUSALEM (AP) – The Israeli president said on Wednesday that he would move quickly to task a new candidate to form a government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to do so before midnight.
President Reuven Rivlin will meet the two main candidates for government formation – opposition leader Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, a former ally of Netanyahu – on Wednesday morning. He asked the parties to make their positions known by 2 p.m. (11 a.m. GMT).
Netanyahu’s political future was called into question when he failed to assemble a ruling coalition within the four weeks allotted to him, which raised the possibility that his 12-year tenure as Prime Minister – the longest in Israel’s history – is coming to an end soon.
Rivlin, who occupies a mostly ceremonial role, is expected in the coming days to give one of Netanyahu’s opponents a chance to form an alternative coalition government. He could ask parliament to choose one of its own members as prime minister. If all else fails, the country would be forced into another election this fall – the fifth in just over two years.
The elections held on March 23 stalled for the fourth consecutive time in the past two years. Despite repeated encounters with many of his rivals and unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party, Netanyahu was unable to strike a deal.
Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first chance to form a coalition after 52 lawmakers approved him as prime minister last month. It was far from a majority, but the highest number for any party leader.
Lapid, who has received the backing of 45 lawmakers, now appears to be the candidate most likely to have a shot at forming a government.
Bennett, leader of the small religious nationalist Yamina party, is also a possibility. Netanyahu’s former ally only became rival control of just seven seats in parliament, but he has emerged as a kingmaker of sorts and appears to be carrying the votes Lapid would need to secure a parliamentary majority.
Lapid said he was ready to share the Prime Minister’s job with Bennett, with Bennett serving as the first in a rotation. But they didn’t make any firm deal. The parties opposed to Netanyahu represent a wide range of conflicting ideologies, making it unclear whether they will be able to unite.
Netanyahu has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, with the last four elections all seen as a referendum on his rule. He desperately wanted to stay in office while he was on trial, using his position to attack prosecutors and seek possible immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu has been accused of fraud, breach of trust and corruption in a series of scandals. The trial has entered the witness phase, with embarrassing testimony accusing him of exchanging favors with a powerful media mogul. Netanyahu denies the charges, accusing law enforcement, the judiciary and the media of carrying out a “witch hunt” against him.