May 4, 2021 - World

Netanyahu fails to form government, leaving his future in doubt

Netanyahu campaigns ahead of the election. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government before his mandate expired on Tuesday night, putting him in the most vulnerable position he has faced politically since becoming prime minister in 2009.

Why it matters: This is the third time in the last two years that Netanyahu has had the first crack at forming a government but failed to do so. But this time, his rivals may be able to form a government without him.

What's next: President Reuven Rivlin has three days to hold consultations with the various parties before deciding who will receive the mandate next.

  • Rivlin’s aides tell me he's most likely to give the mandate to the centrist opposition leader, Yair Lapid, who has at least 45 members behind him in the 120-seat Knesset.

Behind the scenes: For almost two weeks, it has been clear that Netanyahu didn't have a path to a majority.

  • He has focused instead on trying to drive a wedge between Lapid and Naftali Bennett, the leader of a right-wing party. The two have been negotiating toward an alternative government.
  • Netanyahu considered unprecedented steps to try to sabotage the transfer of the mandate to Lapid, Tal Shalev reported for Walla News, including falsely notifying Rivlin that he formed a government. After his plans were exposed, he backed off.
  • Netanyahu has also considered ordering his right-wing bloc to recommend to Rivlin that he give the mandate to Bennett, rather than Lapid. Netanyahu could then pressure Bennett to negotiate only with his fellow conservatives. But that plan too fell apart after Bennett refused to rule out negotiations with Lapid.

The state of play: The outlines of a potential Lapid-Bennett power-sharing deal are already clear.

  • Despite Bennett's party only winning seven seats in the Knesset, Lapid would allow him to serve as prime minister for two years before he would rotate into the job for another two years.
  • The center-left, which won more seats, would control most government ministries, however. All government decisions would have to be decided by consensus, and each bloc would have veto power.
  • The government would steer clear of controversial ideological issues and focus on the post-COVID recovery, the economy and restoring some unity to the country after four consecutive election campaigns.

Yes, but: It's no sure thing that Lapid and Bennett will be able to iron out all the remaining issues and replace Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

What to watch: For Netanyahu, this is a desperate moment. In addition to watching the mandate pass to his rivals, he's also facing an ongoing corruption trial that could eventually land him in prison.

  • Still, the lesson of recent Israeli politics is to never count him out.
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