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Rivlin: Lapid has best chance, 'despite many difficulties'

President tasks Lapid with forming coalition; Bennett would likely head it first

Yesh Atid leader, backed by 56 MKs, given 28 days to muster majority after Netanyahu fails, says he’ll do so ‘as soon as possible’; Bennett: Now is time for a unity government

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) meets Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, May 5, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin (R) meets Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, May 5, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin announced Wednesday that he had tasked Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid with forming Israel’s next government, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day earlier acknowledged he had failed to build a coalition.

Lapid, like Netanyahu before him, has 28 days to try and form a government, though the new prime minister-designate faces an uphill battle to complete the task.

In a televised statement from his official residence, Rivlin said his “main consideration” in picking Lapid was that he had the best chance of forming a government that can win the Knesset’s backing, though this, the president said, would be difficult.

Rivlin also acknowledged that Lapid may not initially lead the government he is attempting to cobble together. The president was referring to Lapid’s declared readiness to let Yamina leader Naftali Bennett serve first as prime minister in a “unity government”; the president said that possible arrangement, under which Lapid would initially serve as “alternative prime minister,” did not prevent him from formally charging the Yesh Atid head with building a coalition.

Rivlin, who consulted with Knesset party representatives earlier Wednesday, noted that Lapid had secured the recommendations of 56 MKs, versus seven for Yamina leader Bennett. As well as his own party, the Yesh Atid leader received the backing of Blue and White, Labor, Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu and — unlike in the previous round of recommendations — the right-wing New Hope and the predominantly Arab Joint List.

Since Bennett had indicated readiness to join a unity government, and Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas had said he would “cooperate positively with anyone who is entrusted with forming a government,” Rivlin said, “it is clear that MK Yair Lapid could form a government that has the confidence of the Knesset, despite there being many difficulties.”

Added Rivlin: “On the basis of the recommendations I received… I spoke just now with Knesset Member Yair Lapid and informed him I am tasking him with the mandate to form a government, whether this is a government that he initially leads, or whether it is a government led first by another candidate and in which he initially serves as alternate prime minister.”

President Reuven Rivlin announces he is tasking Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid with forming a new government, during a speech at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, May 5, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Lapid and Bennett have been negotiating coalition terms in recent weeks, reportedly closing in on agreements in many areas, with the Yesh Atid leader saying he is ready to let Bennett serve first as prime minister in a rotation agreement.

Moments before Rivlin’s announcement, Bennett signaled that he would be willing to join such a government, saying that new elections — the fifth in two and a half years — would “simply destroy the country,” and backing a “broad emergency government… will get the wheel out of the mud,” referring to the years-long political deadlock.

Responding to Rivlin’s announcement, Lapid said, “a unity government isn’t a compromise or a last resort — it’s a goal, it’s what we need.”

He vowed to “do everything to ensure that an Israeli unity government will be formed as soon as possible so we can get to work for the people of Israel.”

Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for a record-breaking 12 consecutive years, plus a three-year term from 1996-9, was given first chance at building a government after the deadlocked March 23 elections.

But on Tuesday, the prime minister’s time to do so ran out, clearing the path for Lapid to make an attempt.

If Lapid fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, which ends June 2, a majority of lawmakers could try to endorse any Knesset member — including Netanyahu and Gantz — as prime minister. A leader has never before been elected during that time period in Israel. If that 21-day period fails to yield a coalition, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a fifth election in two year and a half years.

Rivlin said in his announcement that sending the mandate to the Knesset at this stage, which Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc recommended, would be “a misapplication of the law and could result in a fifth round of elections before all possibilities for forming a government had been exhausted.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during a press conference, April 18, 2021. (Courtesy)

In contrast to the speech he gave when tasking Netanyahu with forming a government a month ago, in which he noted “moral and ethical” reservations given that Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, Rivlin on Tuesday spoke of the need for healing and reconciliation.

“My fellow Israelis, we have been caught in a maze – if not a political crisis – for some time now. But we must not allow these difficulties to undermine our faith that we are on the right path, and that we can continue to build the sovereignty of the Israeli people here,” Rivlin said.

“Whatever it takes, we will know how to come out of this stronger, unified, on the highway guided by Israeli society… I have never seen any crisis that has weakened the spirit of this wonderful people,” he said with a smile. “Perhaps there is no alternative but to repair, to heal, to regrow stronger.”

In addition to resolving their own differences, Lapid and Bennett must also muster a majority coalition from an unlikely mixture of right-wing, left-wing and centrist parties as well as the Islamist Ra’am party, which complicates matters and raises the question of how stable such a government would be to begin with.

Ra’am also negotiated with Netanyahu, but the talks were stymied due to the objection of Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party and vetoed a coalition based on outside support by the “terror-supporting” Islamist party. Ra’am is the political wing of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement and its charter calls Zionism racist.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett delivers a statement to the press at the Knesset on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his speech prior to Rivlin’s announcement, Bennett lamented Israel’s years-long political deadlock and the lack of permanent government to address numerous issues, saying the continued elections cause “direct harm to human lives.”

After Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, Bennett reiterated that he preferred a right-wing coalition, but that the premier was unable to muster a majority. According to the Yamina chief, during the past day he tried to keep open the options for a right-wing coalition, apparently referring to his reported efforts to get Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc to recommend that Bennett form the next government.

“But Netanyahu slammed the door on us,” he said.

Bennett added that now was the time to stop and reconsider a new path, in an appeal to right-wing and religious parties aligned with Netanyahu.

“Whoever cynically takes the State of Israel to fifth elections based on personal interests, in complete opposition to the needs of the nation and state, the people won’t forgive them. This is the time for a unity government,” he said.

Bennett, a religious Zionist politician, is seen as having emerged from under Netanyahu’s shadow, wielding influence that goes beyond his native community and beyond just the right. While he staunchly opposes a Palestinian state and backs many right-wing policies, he is relatively liberal on religious issues and pragmatic on some others, and is seen as mostly independent of the rabbis he tended to follow throughout most of his career.

With Lapid now officially tasked with forming a new government, Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar is to take over as chair of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, the party said Wednesday night.

The Arrangements Committee, the first Knesset committee to be formed after an election, controls the legislative agenda in the new parliament until a new government is formed.  With the ongoing political deadlock complicating the formation of a coalition, the influence of the Arrangements Committee has recently been amplified.

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