Israeli president Reuven Rivlin has assigned Binyamin Netanyahu the task of forming the next government but he faces an uphill task to cobble together a working majority to end the country’s political deadlock.
Parties representing 52 members of the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli parliment, recommended that Mr Netanyahu lead the next government when representatives met Mr Rivlin on Monday following an inconclusive election last month, Israel’s fourth in two years. Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid, received 45 recommendations.
The country is desperate to avoid a fifth election and to end the political chaos but yet another election remains a distinct possibility.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party – by far the largest in the new Knesset with 30 seats – can rely on the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties and the extreme-right Religiuos Zionist party.
To achieve a majority Mr Netanyahu will have to persuade the right-wing Yamina party led by former defence minister Naftali Bennett, which won seven seats, to join a coalition and either attract two defectors from the anti-Netanyahu camp or alternatively win the support of Ra’am, the United Arab List (UAL), which won 4 seats.
However, the Religious Zionist party has made it clear it will not sit in a coalition that is supported, directly or indirectly, by the UAL, which they term “terrorist supporters.”
Mr Netanyahu now has 28 days to form a coalition. If he fails, the president can grant him an additional 14 days, tap another party leader or return the mandate to the Knesset.
Mr Rivlin struck a distinctly pessimistic note when he announced Mr Netanyahu as his choice.
“I get the impression, based on consultations with representatives from the parties, that neither candidate has a good chance of being able to form a government,” Mr Rivlin said. “But I have no choice, the law requires me to select a candidate.
He also alluded to the fact that Mr Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a trial in which witnesses began testifying on Monday.
“This was not an easy decision on a moral and ethical basis,” he said. “The president cannot replace the legislators. The decision to prevent a candidate under indictment from forming a government is the Knesset’s decision.”
Mr Rivlin did not invite Mr Netanyahu to his office to receive the mandate and refused to participate in the traditional photograph with party heads to mark the opening session of the new Knesset.
Yair Lapid is continuing to hold negotiations with Mr Bennett to build an alternative broad-based coalition on the assumption that Mr Netanyahu will fail to form a government. He has already promised Mr Bennett that he can serve first in a rotating premiership agreement that will bring about the end of the Netanyahu era.
“The president fulfilled his duty and didn’t have a choice, but mandating Netanyahu is a disgraceful mark of shame that stains Israel and makes a mockery of our status as a law-abiding country,” Mr Lapid said.