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To block rivals, Netanyahu said to consider claiming he can form government

PM denies planning move, which would give him an extra week to present coalition; later report says idea was weighed but ruled out

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 21, 2021.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 21, 2021.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a bid to buy more time and prevent one of his rivals from being tasked with forming a government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considering telling President Reuven Rivlin that he is able to assemble a coalition when his mandate to do so expires midnight, the Walla news site reported Tuesday afternoon.

Later in the day and shortly before midnight, the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily reported that the move had been considered but was ruled out.

Under Israel’s Basic Law: The Government, once a candidate is able to form a government and informs the president and the Knesset of it, they have a week to finalize their coalition before bringing it before the parliament for a vote of confidence.

Quoting unnamed sources, the report said Netanyahu had been holding talks on the matter despite lacking a coalition agreement with any of his prospective partners, and despite the far-right Religious Zionism party ruling out joining a government backed by the Islamist Ra’am faction, appearing to sink his coalition hopes.

Netanyahu’s office denied the report.

While Netanyahu can tell Rivlin he has a government, the president may ask how Netanyahu and those who back him are able to form a government — something they currently have no clear route to doing.

It was not immediately clear if the president had the power to reject a Netanyahu claim of having formed a coalition.

If Netanyahu does fail to present a coalition, Rivlin would have up to three days to decide what to do next. Netanyahu could seek a 14-day extension, which the president is not required to grant, or Rivlin could give the mandate to another lawmaker — possibly Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid or Yamina’s Naftali Bennett. Or he could throw the mandate to the Knesset, which would have 21 days to find a candidate backed by 61 or more of the 120 MKs; if it fails, Israel will automatically head to its fifth election since April 2019.

With hours until the deadline, Netanyahu’s Likud party was reportedly working Tuesday to convince various parties to back Bennett to be tasked with forming a government, a prospect that would keep alive Netanyahu’s hopes of a rotation deal with the Yamina leader.

Bennett has urged the establishment of a right-wing government and has said that he will back a Netanyahu-led government on condition that it has a majority in the Knesset; otherwise, he has said he will back a unity government with the so-called “change bloc” that has vowed to oust the prime minister.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the past few days, Netanyahu has publicly offered Bennett to be prime minister first in a rotation agreement, and Lapid has reportedly done the same in negotiations. Bennett has so far rebuffed Netanyahu’s offer on the grounds that even with Yamina on board, the prime minister still does not have a majority. Hampering Netanyahu’s efforts is the unwavering stance of the far-right Religious Zionism party in his bloc to not be part of a coalition that rests on any Arab party, even via outside support.

In the last round of presidential recommendations, Netanyahu picked up 52 nominations, seven more than Lapid, while Bennett endorsed himself as prime minister with the backing of his seven-member party. The New Hope, Joint List and Ra’am parties, accounting for 16 of the 120 votes, abstained.

This time, while Bennett could, in theory, gain more recommendations than Lapid, Rivlin is reportedly considering skipping another set of consultations with the parties, as is his right, and making a decision primarily based on the first round.

Channel 12 news on Tuesday quoted unnamed senior officials, who were said to have recently spoken with Rivlin, saying that the president would therefore not task Bennett with forming a government.

According to the network, Rivlin is expected to quickly decide what to do when Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires at midnight, possibly as soon as Wednesday.

Instead of direct consultations with party leaders, the president’s chief of staff is expected to make a round of calls to party representatives, the report said.

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

Alongside its reported efforts to help Bennett get the mandate to form the government, Likud is also working on a backup plan to prevent Lapid from being able to do so, seeking approval from the Knesset Arrangements Committee to fast-track a bill proposing a direct vote for prime minister.

Likud wants the committee to approve lifting a procedural requirement that bills wait 45 days from being tabled in the Knesset until they are brought for a vote.

It also sought fast-tracking a list of other bills backed by the pro-Netanyahu bloc, including one enabling the Knesset to override High Court rulings and another legalizing unrecognized West Bank outposts, both of which were approved by the committee.

Should Lapid be tasked with forming a government next, he will be able to choose a new Arrangements Committee chair from his own party, likely dooming any chance that the bill for a direct vote will be heard in the Knesset.

Under the terms of the bill, any MK who has the backing of 20 other lawmakers would be able to run in the election, to be held in a month’s time. Polls have consistently shown Netanyahu as the most popular lawmaker to be prime minister, albeit without marshaling a majority in elections.

The balance of power in the Arrangements Committee was decided in a key Knesset vote last month when a proposal for the panel’s members pitched by Netanyahu’s Likud and its allies was defeated, and that of the opposition leader passed instead. The Arrangements Committee, a temporary body formed after elections, is central to Knesset procedures and wields great power until a government is established.

The proposal to hold a direct vote for the premiership was first floated last month by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key pillar in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc, though Likud officials were pitching it to potential allies before Shas publicly encouraged it.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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