Rivlin likely to task Netanyahu with forming government on first day of trial

Following Likud gains, president seen as set to assign Netanyahu with first crack at cobbling together a majority coalition, though legal challenge looms because of criminal cases

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin is set to task a candidate with forming a government on or before March 17, the same day Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal trial begins.

Rivlin is seen as most likely to task Netanyahu with forming a government, as preliminary results show the longtime leader with the clearest path toward building a coalition government. Likud is expected to garner 36 or 37 seats, while main rival Blue and White is predicted to finish with around 32 seats and only a path toward a minority government.

The Central Elections Committee will present Rivlin with final election results on March 10, following an eight-day period after the vote stipulated by law, the president’s office said Tuesday.

The president then has seven days to hold consultations with lawmakers to decide who is most likely to form a government. The process could wrap up on or before March 17.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, during a press conference at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The MK chosen by the president will then have 28 days to cobble together a majority coalition of 61 lawmakers, with the possibility of a two-week extension. If that lawmaker fails, Rivlin can then assign another Knesset member with the task of forming a government.

While Rivlin is most likely to give Netanyahu the mandate first, the move will face a legal challenge due to Netanyahu’s situation.

Rivlin has tasked Netanyahu with forming a government first in each of the last two elections, though the caretaker premier has failed to muster a coalition both times.

With some 90 percent of ballots tallied, Likud held 29.35% of the votes, which could represent the party’s strongest showing in years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with his wife, Sara, addresses Likud supporters on the night of the Israeli elections at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Top rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party was trailing with 26.34% of the votes.

The non-final tallies gave ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ ten and seven seats, respectively, while religious right-wing Yamina was sitting on about six seats, placing the right-wing bloc at 59 seats, two seats short of a 61-seat majority.

Without 61 seats, Netanyahu will likely seek to woo members of opposition parties to break off and join his coalition. He could also attempt to bring in the secularist Yisrael Beytenu, which looks set to once again play kingmaker. He’ll be helped by the prospect of continued deadlock and a fourth consecutive election, seen as a doomsday scenario, but one that is increasingly likely.

Netanyahu and Rivlin have been at odds in the past year following national elections in April and September, with Rivlin criticizing Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric and the premier accusing the president of favoring Gantz.

Following his election showing, Netanyahu enters uncharted legal territory as his opponents argue he cannot be tasked with forming a government while under indictment.

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases — as well as bribery in one of them — that center on accusations he received illegal gifts and traded political favors for positive news coverage.

He denies wrongdoing and has dismissed the charges against him as a witch hunt by law enforcement, the media and political rivals to force him from office.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks to supporters at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on election night, March 3, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli law requires cabinet ministers facing criminal indictment to resign from their cabinet posts; however there is no such stipulation for a prime minister. An indicted sitting prime minister is unprecedented in Israel’s history.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed a petition with the High Court of Justice Tuesday arguing that Netanyahu should not be allowed to form the next government due to his legal standing.

“A person accused of criminal charges, in particular serious charges such as bribery, fraud and breach of trust, cannot be seen as fit to take upon himself the role of forming a government,” the group said in a statement.

It accused the prime minister of having spent the past few years “launching direct and harmful attacks against the components of Israeli democracy” and engaging “in a methodical and premeditated process of delegitimization of law enforcement authorities and their executive bodies — from the police, through to the State Attorney’s Office, the attorney general, the Knesset legal adviser, the courts and judges.”

In January, the High Court rejected a previous petition filed by the movement arguing that Netanyahu cannot form a government after the election due to the charges against him. At the time, the court said a decision on the matter was “premature.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has also not given an opinion on the matter, calling it a hypothetical situation.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends an event at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem on February 6, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The prime minister faces seven counts of three criminal charges: fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000.

In Case 1000, involving accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors, Mandelblit charged Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust — the latter being a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken the circulation of a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit charged the premier with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu stands accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit is charging Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

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