After 17 months of heading a transitional government and fighting for his political survival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was tasked Thursday by President Reuven Rivlin with forming the next government, which is expected to be announced and sworn in next week.
Rivlin passed the baton to Netanyahu hours after receiving the signatures of 72 Knesset members endorsing him to lead the government, and hours before a deadline that would trigger a fourth round of elections.
“According to the request of a majority of Knesset members … I hereby notify you that you have 14 days to form a government,” Rivlin wrote in an official letter to Netanyahu.
It is the third time in a year that Rivlin has given Netanyahu a shot at forming the Knesset, but unlike previous instances, the Likud leader is widely expected to actually succeed and forge a power-sharing coalition with rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz and other allies who have already agreed to join them.
Already in power for over a decade, Netanyahu will now likely be prime minister for at least another 18 months, as he fights charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases.
On Wednesday, Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White party said the new government would be sworn in on Wednesday, May 13, once final decisions are made regarding ministerial appointments.
Netanyahu was endorsed earlier Thursday as prime minister by 72 Knesset members, completing a remarkable turnaround that will see him retain the premiership for at least the next 18 months and paving the way for him to finalize a coalition agreement with Blue and White party leader Gantz and swear-in his new government next week.
The signatures were delivered to Rivlin hours after constitutional changes underpinning the Likud-Blue and White power-sharing deal were approved by the Knesset and less than a day after the country’s top court rejected eight petitions against the deal and affirmed Netanyahu’s right to set up a new government even when under indictment.
Rivlin’s announcement brought the country one step closer to ending over 16 months of political turmoil wrought by three inconclusive elections.
Netanyahu has continued to helm the transitional government during what is widely seen as the worst political crisis in Israel’s history, despite being under criminal indictment and incessant predictions of his political downfall.
The question of whether Rivlin would be able to task Netanyahu with forming a government given the charges against him had loomed over the political arena and been the subject of several court challenges. Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have to resign if indicted, unlike other ministers, though opponents had sought to have Netanyahu disqualified from even being tasked with forming a government, which they argued was not the same.
On Wednesday, the court again shot down a petition to disqualify the Likud head, but hinted that future challenges may still be considered. It also declined to strike down legislative changes being made as part of the Netanyahu-Gantz power-sharing agreement, while admitting that there were “significant difficulties.”
Had nobody gotten at least 61 recommendations by midnight, or the court tied Rivlin’s hands, the country would have been forced to go to a new election, the fourth in less than 18 months.
The government to be formed by Netanyahu could offer Israel a rare period of political stability as it seeks to repair the economic damage wrought by the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 16,000 people in the country and caused some 240 deaths.
Gantz had run in all three elections as the alternative to Netanyahu, who has been in power for over a decade, but agreed last month to negotiate a coalition deal, angering his allies. He cited the virus emergency as a reason for compromising and reneging on his vow not to serve in a government under Netanyahu as long as he remained under indictment.
On Thursday, he added his signature to those endorsing Netanyahu as prime minister, hoping to succeed the incumbent in 18 months under their rotation deal.
The coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz will see the two share the premiership over the emerging government’s term. Under the deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the first 18 months, followed by Gantz. A late-night amendment to legislation included a clause allowing Netanyahu and Gantz to extend the government’s three-year term by another year if they so choose.
Cabinet positions will be split between separate camps led by the right-wing Likud party and more centrist Blue and White, in what has been described as a two-headed government.
Prospective opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem, once Gantz’s close ally, lambasted the new government, and Blue and White in particular.
“This morning in the Knesset, Benny Gantz and [Blue and White No.2] Gabi Ashkenzi gathered signatures to recommend that the president task Netanyahu with forming the next government. They want to form a government within a week because in two weeks, Netanyahu’s trial starts. Within a week they will swear allegiance to him; in two weeks he will be on trial for breach of trust. They call it an emergency government when the emergency is over. They talk about unity, but don’t trust one another.”