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'After 4 elections, democracy has exhausted itself'

Meeting parties, Rivlin says he ‘can’t currently see a way to form a coalition’

President hints at ‘value-based considerations’ in choice, says he may not give 2nd person a chance; reprimands Likud’s Ohana for speaking against PM’s trial: ‘I can’t accept it’

Members of the Likud party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021, as Rivlin began consulting political leaders to decide who to task with trying to form a new government (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Members of the Likud party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021, as Rivlin began consulting political leaders to decide who to task with trying to form a new government (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Beginning an intensive day of meetings with political parties for consultations on each one’s preferred candidate for forming the next government, President Reuven Rivlin lamented Monday that “at the moment, I can’t see a way to form a coalition.”

He also said if his first choice to form a government fails, he may send the mandate back to the Knesset to make a choice, rather than giving a second person a chance to do so first.

And in stark comments, the president added that “after four election campaigns, democracy has exhausted itself.”

He also hinted at the possibility that Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, taking place at the same time across town, could play a role in his decision on whom he would hand the mandate to.

“There may be other considerations, including value-based considerations that I do not know if the president has the authority to consider,” Rivlin told Likud representatives, the first in line, after they recommended Netanyahu.

“Is there another candidate you would like to recommend as an alternative candidate [to Netanyahu], if such considerations will prevent your candidate from being chosen?” Rivlin asked. Likud officials responded in the negative, saying they were acting in accordance with the law.

An extraordinary argument then developed between Rivlin and the lead Likud representative, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, who said he’d escorted Netanyahu to the court before coming, in order to stand on the side of “truth and justice.”

President Reuven Rivlin (L) and Likud minister Amir Ohana at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, April 5, 2021 (video screenshot)

Rivlin interceded: “Truth and justice? You’re saying that in your own name, not for the purposes of this forum.”

“I think I’m not only speaking for myself,” Ohana said. “When over a million voters voted Likud led by Benjamin Netanyahu when they are well aware of the situation you may have hinted at, if I understood the hint correctly, I think they voiced a high level of trust in him and a lack of trust in others.”

Rivlin interjected: “I would like to say you are stating this as your opinion. This is the President’s Residence and I cannot accept it.”

To this Ohana retorted: “Just as sir is not obligated to accept my opinion, I am not obligated to accept his.”

“Of course, of course,” Rivlin replied.

The Yesh Atid party was next in line after Likud, with its representatives recommending party leader Yair Lapid.

“When we have a prime minister who is in court at this moment defending himself, we need a candidate who will work for the sake of the State of Israel, not himself, to take on this important task,” Yesh Atid No. 2 Orna Barbivai said.

She added she did not rule out Lapid potentially putting forward another candidate to be prime minister, but said that he must be given the mandate to form the government based on having the best chances to succeed at the task.

Rivlin, quizzing the party representatives on whether they could support a government headed by someone other than Lapid, said he saw the deadlock as unfixable.

“At the moment, I can’t see a way to form a coalition,” Rivlin said.

Yesh Atid MKs said they did not rule out sitting with any partner in the coalition, including with Likud, provided that Netanyahu was not the head of the party.

Members of the Yesh Atid party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The third party to meet with Rivlin, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, said it would recommend “Netanyahu and only Netanyahu” to form the next government.

“Throughout the entire election campaign, we have said clearly that we will only support Netanyahu as prime minister. And that is what we are here to say today,” MK Yinon Azoulay said.

“We believe he is the only one who can bring about a 61-seat majority. How will it happen? We believe it will,” Azulay said.

Later Blue and White recommended Lapid to form a “wide centrist government.”

Culture Minister Chili Tropper told Rivlin that the party does not rule out any others, including Likud, but will not accept “any government headed by Netanyahu.”

Rivlin said that “the direction of the talks so far is a fifth election. After four election campaigns democracy has exhausted itself.”

Members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party give a press statement after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked told the president that the party was recommending its own leader, Naftali Bennett. She urged the president to consider the nomination despite the party only having seven seats, predicting that a “stable” government could be formed.

Yamina MK Matan Kahana said a fifth round of elections would be a “tragedy” and must be averted at any cost.

After Yamina came United Torah Judaism, who as expected gave their backing to Netanyahu.

UTJ leader Moshe Gafni said his party was loyal to Netanyahu and Likud, adding that “if there was another candidate for Likud, we would go with them.”

Asked by Rivlin how the representatives from United Torah Judaism foresaw  Netanyahu forming a government amid the political deadlock, Gafni replied, “We’ll pray.”

Quizzed by Rivlin on their views of Netanyahu’s corruption trial, UTJ MK Meir Porush underlined that Netanyahu can legally remain prime minister until a conviction is reached in the trial and all appeals are exhausted. Therefore the ultra-Orthodox party had no problem recommending he remain in office, said Porush.

In the last meeting before the afternoon break, the Labor party nominated Lapid to form the next government.

Members of the Yamina party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Labor MK Omer Barlev told Rivlin that Lapid, as the head of the largest party opposed to Netanyahu, should therefore be tasked with forming a government and that he believed that if all parties opposed to Netanyahu put their differences aside, the Yesh Atid leader would be successful.

Like those before him from the anti-Netanyahu bloc, the Labor lawmaker said his party was willing to join a Lapid-led government with any political party and did not disqualify anyone — except for Netanyahu.

As the meetings resumed in the afternoon, the Yisrael Beytenu party recommended Lapid form the next government, noting its pledge to back the head of the largest party in the “change bloc” of factions opposed to Netanyahu.

Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman likewise said his right-wing secularist party was open to backing another candidate besides Lapid to avoid further elections, but not Netanyahu.

“I think we must end his rule,” he said.

After Yisrael Beytenu, the far-right Religious Zionism party met with Rivlin and threw its six seats behind Netanyahu. The endorsement gave Netanyahu 52 recommendations, while Lapid had 39 and Bennett seven.

The president was meeting parties according to their factions’ size in the incoming Knesset, with the largest party — Likud — first and the smallest — Ra’am — last.

Following the discussions, on Wednesday he is expected to assign a lawmaker the mandate to form the next government, based on who he assesses has the best chance of doing so.

The meetings were being held at Rivlin’s official residence in Jerusalem and were being streamed live on the president’s social media channels.

The increased transparency of the process is seen as a reaction to Netanyahu allies making various conspiratorial allegations against the president, claiming he is attempting to unseat Netanyahu by arranging shadowy political pacts.

Deadlock persists

The outcome of Monday’s discussions is up in the air. Neither the pro-Netanyahu bloc of parties nor the anti-Netanyahu camp has a clear path to a majority following the March 23 vote, Israel’s fourth inconclusive election in two years.

Both blocs are likely to need the support of Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina faction and Mansour Abbas’s Islamist Ra’am party to secure a majority of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and establish a government. Yamina, with seven seats, and Ra’am, with four, have not committed to either side.

Left to right: Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (Miriam Alster/Flash90); Yamina party chief Naftali Bennett; and New Hope party head Gideon Sa’ar (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Right-wing lawmakers in both the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs have ruled out partnering with Arab parties, complicating any potential majority coalition, which would likely require their support. The anti-Netanyahu bloc has also been hobbled by disputes over who will lead it.

Media reports Sunday indicated that though Bennett prefers a right-wing government led by Netanyahu, if such a government is not possible he may very well choose to ally with the anti-Netanyahu bloc to form a power-sharing government and prevent another election.

No candidate is likely to receive a majority of 61 recommendations from lawmakers on Monday, with Netanyahu expected to get 52, or 59 if Bennett backs him, while Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid will likely get fewer.

According to Channel 12, Rivlin planned to ask party leaders whom they will refuse to sit with in a coalition. Sixty-seven lawmakers will not refuse to partner with Bennett; 66 will not refuse Lapid and 63 will not refuse Netanyahu, Channel 12 said, although it is unclear what Rivlin would decide to do with such information.

Ahead of the meetings, Rivlin last week called for “unusual collaborations, inter-community cooperation and professional and dedicated work for the benefit of all Israeli citizens.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with then Defense Minister Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following Rivlin’s comments, several senior Likud officials suggested the president was calling for an alliance of anti-Netanyahu parties and accused him of playing politics rather than fulfilling his quasi-constitutional duty.

But Likud, too, would also likely need “unusual collaborations” if it hopes to clinch a majority in the divided Knesset.

Rivlin has said his main consideration in picking a candidate would be their “chance of forming a government that will win the Knesset’s endorsement” — a possible indication that he won’t necessarily pick the lawmaker with the most formal recommendations.

Party leaders including Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett have been jostling for position since the election by politicking and holding talks with other party leaders.

The anti-Netanyahu bloc of Yesh Atid (17 seats), Blue and White (8), Labor (7), Yisrael Beytenu (7), Joint List (6), Meretz (6), and New Hope (6) won 57 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in total, and would need all four of Ra’am’s lawmakers to back its coalition in order to have a majority in the Knesset, as well as the backing of the right-wing Yamina.

The pro-Netanyahu bloc of Likud (30), Shas (9), UTJ (7), and Religious Zionism (6) would need the support of Yamina. But that would only give it 59 seats in total —  unless it depends on the Islamist Ra’am for support.

Rivlin is expected to announce on Wednesday who will be given the mandate to form the next government. That person will then have 28 days — until May 5 — to present his or her government. If the candidate fails to do so by that time, he or she can request a two-week extension, until May 19, though the president is not obligated to approve it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to address supporters after the March 23 elections, at his Likud party’s election HQ in Jerusalem, early on Wednesday, March. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

If the person with the mandate does not succeed in forming a government, the president can either task a second person with the attempt (for another period of 28 days and a possible additional 14), or send the mandate back to the Knesset, giving the legislature 21 days to agree on a candidate supported by 61 MKs.

If the president appoints a second person and that person also fails to assemble a coalition, the mandate automatically returns to the Knesset for the 21-day period. During that time, any MK is eligible to attempt forming a government.

At the end of the 21-day period, if no candidate has been agreed upon by 61 MKs, the new Knesset automatically disbands and the country heads to yet another election.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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