JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a new government before Tuesday’s midnight deadline, putting his political future in jeopardy as he stands on trial for corruption and prolonging a political stalemate that has failed only got worse after four elections in two years.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin can now give a rival and eclectic camp of anti-Netanyahu parties a chance to form a government, which could oust Mr. Netanyahu from power after 12 consecutive years in power.
Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party is by far the most prominent in Israel’s fractured political scene, winning 30 seats in the general election in March. Despite this, he was unable to muster enough coalition partners to command a majority of at least 61 seats in the 120 MPs in parliament.
His hopes for a right-wing and religious coalition ultimately failed because his far-right allies refused to join a government backed by a small Islamist Arab party. The Arab party, Raam, was prepared to support a Netanyahu administration in return for benefits for Israel’s Arab minority.
Mr Netanyahu also failed in a final push to persuade right-wing rival Naftali Bennett to join him in a power-sharing deal that would have seen the two men take turns as prime minister.
Mr. Rivlin can now ask one of Mr. Netanyahu’s rivals – representing a disparate group of parties ranging from the pro-settlement right to the secular left – to try to concoct a governing coalition that would send the prime minister into the ‘opposition. Or Mr. Rivlin could ask Parliament to nominate a candidate.
He has three days to make this decision.
Mr. Netanyahu would remain in power as interim prime minister until a new government is formed. If no one can form a government, Israel will head for a fifth election.
But with his failure to build a majority coalition, Mr. Netanyahu may have lost his best chance of gaining some sort of legal immunity from criminal prosecution. Accused of corruption, fraud and breach of trust, he has denied wrongdoing and insisted that the prosecution against him collapse in court.
Some of his political allies had pledged to take action or advance legislation that could suspend his trial until he leaves office. A new Netanyahu government could also have appointed a more sympathetic attorney general to replace the current one, whose term ends early next year.
The failure to create a new government could also prolong a political stalemate that has left Israel without a state budget for two consecutive years amid a pandemic, and delayed appointments to several key administrative and judicial positions.
The biggest party contesting Likud, and the finalist in the election, is Yesh Atid, a centrist group that won 17 seats. But its leader, Yair Lapid, a former finance minister, also does not have an easy way to form a government.
The bloc opposing Mr. Netanyahu is made up of many other small parties with conflicting agendas. The small right-wing parties in the bloc see Mr. Lapid as too left-wing to lead the government.
Instead, discussions within Mr. Lapid’s bloc have centered on the possibility of Mr. Lapid sharing power with another candidate, such as Mr. Bennett, the leader of Yamina, a right-wing party that does not ‘won only seven seats. Under such an agreement, Mr. Bennett could lead the country for a year, before handing over the first ministry to Mr. Lapid.
Mr Lapid’s party has defended middle-class taxpaying Israelis and called for limiting the autonomy given to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community – many of whom are exempt from military service and study religious texts instead of enter the labor market. This has made him an enemy of the ultra-Orthodox parties that have long kept Mr. Netanyahu in power.
Mr Lapid pledged during the election campaign to put his ego aside and concede the post of prime minister if that was what it took to topple Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
To constitute a majority, this bloc would also have to count on the support of an Arab party, which it has hesitated to do in the past. Even if they succeed in forming a government with the limited goal of stabilizing the country after a long period of political chaos, many analysts believe its heterogeneity would make it short-lived.
Mr Bennett is also looking for a chance to try to form the next government. He said his preference was to build a right-wing coalition comprising Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud and religious parties but, failing that, he would work to form a more eclectic “unity” government comprising parties from the anti-Netanyahu bloc. .
If no government has been formed within the allotted time – 28 days for a lawmaker other than Mr. Netanyahu, or up to five weeks for a candidate nominated by parliament – the assembly will automatically dissolve and the Israelis will return to the polls for the fifth time since spring 2019.
Aside from the country’s usual tensions between secular and religious, right and left, and Jews and Arabs, Israelis are increasingly divided over Mr. Netanyahu himself. Supporters of the ideological right are now split between pro and anti-Netanyahu camps.
Mr. Netanyahu had the strong support of just 52 lawmakers, his own Likud, two staunch ultra-Orthodox parties and a far-right alliance. Three right-wing parties ultimately chose not to send him back to government.
A total of 13 parties entered parliament, all except Likud and Yesh Atid with single-digit seats.
Any government formed is likely to be unstable and dependent on the demands and whims of small parties with disproportionate power.
This latest failure to form a government is a blow to Mr. Netanyahu. He campaigned for the March elections and gambled his fortune on the success of Israel’s vaccination campaign, which allowed the economy and cultural life to reopen just in time for the polls.
But commentators say it’s still too early to write it off.
He also failed to form a government after two elections in 2019. But when his rivals also failed to cement a coalition, he remained in place as interim prime minister. An election in April 2020 produced an unhappy unity government that collapsed after seven months of political and administrative paralysis.
Some analysts say Mr. Netanyahu, a political survivor, is happy to function as interim prime minister, riding the wave of electoral turmoil from one transitional government to another, as long as he remains in power. And if the latest mess ends in a fifth election, he’s likely to run again.