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As PM's 28 days expire, he blames Bennett for failure

Netanyahu tells president he cannot form a government; Rivlin may now task Lapid

Likud incumbent formally returns the mandate minutes before midnight deadline; president to discuss next steps with party representatives Wednesday; Netanyahu stays transitional PM

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on April 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on April 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government ahead of a midnight Tuesday-Wednesday deadline, telling the president he could not muster a majority and leaving the premier close to losing power after 12 straight years in office.

However, the rival bloc of parties could also fail to build a Knesset majority, and Netanyahu continues as transitional prime minister for the time being.

Netanyahu formally returned the government-forming mandate to President Reuven Rivlin a few minutes before the deadline expired, and the president now has three days to decide how best to proceed.

Rivlin’s office said it would contact party representatives “regarding the process of forming a government” on Wednesday morning. He is now seen likely to give Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid the chance to form a coalition, in the knowledge that Lapid and Yamina’s Naftali Bennett have been holding negotiations under which Bennett would serve first as prime minister in a rotation agreement with Lapid.

In a statement, Likud blamed Bennett for blocking Netanyahu’s route to a majority. “Because of Bennett’s refusal to commit to a right-wing government, a move that would definitely have led to the establishment of a government with additional MKs joining, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned the mandate to the president,” Likud said as the midnight deadline passed.

Party leaders Naftali Bennett (left) and Yair Lapid during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Knesset building in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

The president can now give the mandate to another MK, most likely Lapid or, possibly, Bennett. He could also send the mandate to the Knesset, which would have 21 days to find a candidate backed by 61 or more of the 120 MKs; if that failed, Israel would automatically head to its fifth election since April 2019.

Hebrew media reports citing senior political sources have speculated that Lapid will be given the next opportunity to form a government, as he had the second-most recommendations after Netanyahu when Rivlin consulted with party representatives last month. The Likud leader was given the first opportunity to cobble together a coalition on April 6, after receiving 52 recommendations versus Lapid’s 45.

Lapid and Bennett have been negotiating coalition terms in recent weeks, reportedly closing in on agreements in many areas, with the Yesh Atid leader ready to let Bennett serve first as prime minister in a “unity government.” The capacity of the so-called “change bloc” of anti-Netanyahu parties to win a Knesset majority is not straightforward, since parties of radically diverse ideologies would need to back it. However, the fact that Likud tried to woo the conservative Islamic party Ra’am into supporting a Netanyahu-led coalition would appear to have broken a historic taboo on Arab parties holding a determining role in the establishment of an Israeli government.

Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for a record-breaking 12 consecutive years, after a three-year term from 1996-9, was given first chance at building a government after the deadlocked March 23 elections — Israel’s fourth elections in two years. Netanyahu came close to losing power after the third election, in March 2020, when his rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party was charged by Rivlin with building a government. But Netanyahu managed to woo Gantz into a coalition with him and retain the premiership. That coalition collapsed in December, when Netanyahu failed to pass a state budget, triggering the March 23 vote.

Bennett has been in talks with party leaders, including Netanyahu, aimed at convincing them to update their recommendations to back him for the premiership. Yamina hoped to receive the backing of Likud, Religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties. This would give Bennett 59 recommendations, surpassing Lapid. Likud’s statement blaming Bennett for Netanyahu’s inability to build a majority, however, would appear to reduce the prospect of Likud now asking Rivlin to let the Yamina leader try to form a coalition.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rivlin would not necessarily grant the Yamina chair the mandate even if he did get more recommendations than Lapid, as the right-wing bloc already had a chance to form a government and failed to do so. If Bennett managed to get an absolute majority of MKs to back him — which would require convincing Ra’am to back him as well — Rivlin would likely have no choice but to hand him the mandate.

Channel 12 news on Tuesday quoted unnamed senior officials, who were said to have recently spoken with Rivlin, saying the president will not task Bennett with forming a government. According to the network, Rivlin may issue a decision as soon as Wednesday.

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

Prior to the Tuesday night deadline, Bennett had urged the establishment of a right-wing government and said that he would back a Netanyahu-led coalition on condition that it could muster a majority in the Knesset; otherwise, he said he would back a unity government with the “change bloc” that has vowed to oust the prime minister.

Lapid has spent the past several weeks galvanizing the support of the change bloc — which consists of Yesh Atid (17 seats), Blue and White (8), Yisrael Beytenu (7), Labor (7), New Hope (6), and Meretz (6) — but has also been in talks with additional parties including Yamina (7), Ra’am (4) and the Joint List (6), most of whose support he would need to swear in a government.

While Lapid’s party won 17 seats in the March election, he has said he is prepared to allow Bennett to serve first as premier in a rotational agreement, despite Yamina only having won seven seats.

Speaking at his Yesh Atid party’s faction meeting on Monday, Lapid said that he was unwilling to relinquish the presidential mandate to Bennett and expected to be tasked with forming a government by Rivlin.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid speaks at a weekly faction meeting in the Knesset on May 5, 2021 (Courtesy)

“I will not give up the mandate to Bennett. I see the tricks that are being done and I hope the president doesn’t enable it,” Lapid said, apparently referring to Netanyahu’s offer to Bennett of a premiership rotation deal. “We will go with Bennett and try to form a government.”

At the same time, Lapid confirmed he was still willing to let Bennett be first in a premiership rotation deal between the two.

“The foundations are ready. We can form a government. In one more day, if nothing surprising happens, we will be faced with two options: an Israeli national unity government, solid, decent and hard-working. Or fifth elections,” he said.

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