Netanyahu gets first crack at forming a government in Israel, unenthusiastic president decides

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
(Image credit: Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the mandate to form a new government, saying he has a "slightly better" chance of forging a governing coalition than centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid. Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, appeared in court Monday to hear charges in his own corruption trial, and Rivlin did not sound thrilled to give him first shot to stay in power.

"None of the candidates have a realistic chance of creating a government that can foster trust in the Israeli Knesset, but I must do what is required of me," Rivlin said, adding that there is unfortunately no law against prime ministers serving while also standing trial for various crimes. "It is not an easy decision, on an ethical or moral level," he said.

Israeli law compelled Rivlin to give the mandate to the leader most likely to succeed, and 52 members of the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, recommended Netanyahu in consultations Monday, versus 45 for Lapid, seven for Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yemina party, and 16 who stated no preference.

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"Netanyahu's path for forming a coalition is very, very narrow," and it requires him "to convince the radical right wing 'Religious Zionism' party, which consists of Jewish supremacists and Islamophobes, to sit together in the same coalition with the Islamic party — which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement," Barak Ravid reports at Axios. If he can't form a government in 28 days, Lapid will get a shot. And he fails, Israel heads to the polls again for a fifth election in two years.

Netanyahu gave a televised address Monday night accusing the judicial system of staging a "legal coup" to oust a "strong, right wing prime minister," leading Israeli columnist Ben Caspit to write in the daily Maariv that "Benjamin Netanyahu has finally lost it" with his "'j'accuse' speech."

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