Israel opposition leader Lapid gets chance to form government
Israel's opposition leader Yair Lapid received a mandate to form a government Wednesday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's failed effort following the nation's fourth inconclusive vote in less than two years.
President Reuven Rivlin made the announcement after consultations with party leaders to determine if any lawmaker had a path to clinch a coalition and end an unprecedented era of political gridlock.
Rivlin noted that Lapid, a centrist former television anchor, might seek a deal in which another lawmaker serves first as prime minister, as part of a compromise rotational coalition.
"I will do everything to ensure that an Israeli unity government will be formed as soon as possible so we can get to work for the people of Israel," Lapid said in a statement after the announcement.
Lapid had previously confirmed that he offered such an arrangement to Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious nationalist Yamina party.
Rivlin said he believed Lapid "could form a government that has the confidence of the Knesset (Israel's parliament), despite there being many difficulties."
Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party finished first in the March 23 election, helping the divisive premier earn a 28-day mandate to negotiate a government.
But that mandate expired at 2100 GMT on Tuesday and Netanyahu informed Rivlin he had been unable to secure a majority in the 120-seat parliament.
Netanyahu's failure further highlighted deep fractures in the Israeli electorate, which spread its support across the political spectrum, including far-right Jewish extremists and a Palestinian-Islamist party.
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Rivlin met in person Wednesday with Lapid and Bennett, who has become a closely-watched kingmaker, despite Yamina controlling only seven parliamentary seats.
Bennett backed himself for prime minister in his presidency meeting but later reiterated that he was open to negotiations as his main priority was to avoid a fifth election.
Bennett was once a Netanyahu ally and served as his defence minister but their relationship has disintegrated.
During Netanyahu's ongoing corruption trial where the 71-year-old premier is accused of trading regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage, the court heard testimony about Netanyahu's alleged obsession with smearing Bennett.
Lapid was backed Wednesday by much of the so-called "change" bloc, receiving endorsements from left-wing Labor, centre-left Meretz and from the hawkish but fiercely anti-Netanyahu Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lierberman.
Blue and White, led by Defence Minister Benny Gantz, also backed Lapid again.
New Hope, a party of Likud defectors that holds six Knesset seats, endorsed Lapid after abstaining during Rivlin's last round of consultations.
Likud, its ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies and the far right Religious Zionism faction all asked Rivlin to give the Knesset a 21-day window to nominate a candidate to be prime minister.
Because the Knesset was unlikely to break the impasse, that was seen as tactic to force a fifth election, opening another window for Netanyahu to retain power.
Rivlin said giving the "mandate to the Knesset would be a misapplication of the law and could result in a fifth round of elections before all possibilities for forming a government had been exhausted."
Lapid has said that an ideologically divided government forged largely through opposition against Netanyahu "wouldn't be perfect", but would serve Israel's national interest while achieving the goal of ousting a divisive prime minister in power for a record 12 consecutive years.
A poll released Wednesday by the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank showed that 70 percent of Israelis believe the coalition talks will fail and a new vote will be called.
Netanyahu and his allies have considered legislation to create a direct vote for prime minister, hoping he would emerge victorious in a divided field, but there is little indication so far that this initiative would get off the ground.