What next for Benjamin Netanyahu amid Israel’s political stalemate?

Prime minister battling to retain power as deadline to form coalition passes

Benjamin Netanyahu
(Image credit: Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Benjamin Netanyahu is facing an uncertain future after missing the deadline to form a coalition government following Israel’s latest inconclusive election.

Israel’s longest-serving leader had sought to form a coalition between far-right Jewish politicians and a small Islamist party, the United Arab List, commonly known in Israel by its Hebrew acronym Ra’am.

But having failed to secure what would have been a historically unprecedented coalition, his rivals, led by centrist leader Yair Lapid, are being handed the chance to form a coalition - potentially ending Netanyahu’s 25-year domination of Israeli politics,

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Finding friends

As the leader of Likud, the party with the most seats in the Israeli parliament, Netanyahu was given the first crack at forming a coalition government after the March vote - Israel’s fourth parliamentary election in two years - resulted in a near deadlock. But after “several weeks of fruitless talks, his mandate expired on Tuesday night”, The Telegraph reports.

In a bid to end the political impasse, Netanyahu had also put forward a last-minute “proposal to stage direct elections for the premiership”. That power play failed to pay off too, with rival parties now to be given 28 days to engage in their own coalition talks.

“Complicating” Netanyahu’s coalition-building effort was his ongoing corruption case, says The Guardian. “While he denies the charges, some politicians have pledged not to serve under a prime minister who is on trial,” the newspaper reports.

Opposition leader Lapid has seized on the scandal to call for a political reboot, saying: “It’s time for a new government. We can form a government.”

But as The Guardian notes, there is “no guarantee” that Lapid can “bridge vast ideological differences” in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s former Likud defence minister Naftali Bennett - now leader of far-right party Yamina - has also “emerged as a potential kingmaker”, the paper continues. Bennett “has said he wants to oust the prime minister and avoid a potential fifth election - the inevitable outcome if no government is formed”.

Missing Tuesday’s deadline does not automatically mean that Netanyahu’s leadership is over. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, has the power to grant the PM an extension that would allow him to continue talks with potential allies.

But instead, Rivlin last night gave Lapid - whose Yesh Atid party came second in the latest election - the mandate to begin coalition talks, after 56 lawmakers expressed support for his candidacy, the BBC reports. In a televised address, Rivlin said that it was “clear” that Lapid “could form a government that has the confidence of the Knesset, despite there being many difficulties”.

“My fellow Israelis, we have been caught in a maze - if not a political crisis - for some time now,” the president added. “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.”

Pundits are now trying to predict the next move by Netanyahu, who “is famed for political wizardry”, having regularly “appeared on the brink of losing power since he first took office in 1996, only to snatch it back”, says The Guardian.

But the Israel Hayom newspaper’s political commentator Mati Tuchfeld suggests that the 71-year-old politician may have finally reached the end of the road, arguing that “even the greatest magician of all times at some point runs out of rabbits”.

Hazards ahead

Lapid is expected to seek a power-sharing agreement “in which Lapid would rotate in office with ultra-nationalist politician Bennett”, Reuters reports.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, will be seeking solutions to both the political and legal crises looming over him. In failing to build a coalition of his own, Netanyahu may have “lost his best chance of gaining some kind of legal immunity from criminal prosecution”, The New York Times (NYT) says.

Allies of the PM “had pledged to make moves or advance legislation that could put his trial on hold”, the paper continues, and maintaining control of the Knesset would also allow him to appoint “a more sympathetic attorney general to replace the current one, whose term is up early next year”.

Without that kind of protection, Netanyahu may see his tenure at the top of Israeli politics end in disgrace - and a criminal conviction.

Alternately, if Lapid and Bennett are unable to find common ground, Israeli voters could be heading back to the polls yet again. But another election would add to the country’s “political turmoil” amid “challenges from Iran’s nuclear programme” and efforts to simulate a post-Covid “economic recovery”, says Reuters.

All the same, as the world watches to see how the long-running drama plays out, many commentators insist it is “still too early” to write off Netanyahu, says the NYT.

Pundits are predicting that he would be “happy to function as a caretaker prime minister, riding the wave of electoral turmoil from one transitional government to another, as long as he remains in office”, the paper adds. “And if the latest imbroglio ends in a fifth election, he is likely to run again.”

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