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Israel’s Netanyahu, facing indictment, sets out to build a coalition that will stand by him

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AP)
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JERUSALEM — As negotiations on the formation of a new Israeli government got underway Monday, almost a week after parliamentary elections, analysts said one issue is foremost in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mind: building an indictment-proof coalition.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin began consulting Monday morning with the heads of the country’s various political parties on their preferred choice to head the new government, a process that was live-streamed for the first time. 

There is little doubt Netanyahu will be able to form a coalition, most likely one made up of his own ruling Likud party and his traditional partners of ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties, giving him a 65-seat majority in Israel’s Knesset, or parliament. 

But Netanyahu will be looking to form a bloc that will stand by him if expected indictments in three corruption cases against him proceed — or that will even agree to pass legislation granting him immunity from prosecution. 

In a stunning turn, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government by May 29 and Israel is now headed to a new round of elections. (Video: Loveday Morris, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

To do that, he must balance demands from emboldened ultra-Orthodox, secular and far-right parties jostling for guarantees of specific legislation and ministries, with his legal woes leaving him particularly beholden to the whims of coalition partners. 

Adding to the complications are demands for Israel to annex areas in the occupied West Bank. Such a move could clash with Netanyahu’s desire to appease the Trump administration as it prepares to roll out a peace plan, expected later this spring or early summer.  

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“It’s not exactly his first rodeo,” Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said of Netanyahu’s negotiating skills. But this time, he noted, the prime minister has one overriding aim.  

“Immunity is his number one priority,” Wolfsfeld said. He added that Netanyahu might go so far as to press coalition partners to agree to pass measures that could shield a sitting prime minister from prosecution.

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said he intends to indict Netanyahu on charges including bribery and breach of trust, pending a hearing in which Netanyahu can present his defense. 

“The difficult thing for him is some of the legislation he’ll have to promise in return,” Wolfsfeld said. 

Such pledges could include neutering the Supreme Court and annexing parts of the West Bank, he said. Netanyahu already made a pre-election promise to apply Israeli sovereignty to settlements there, a step considered illegal by most of the international community. 

After meeting with the heads of smaller parties Tuesday, Rivlin will authorize the candidate with the most support to form a government within 28 days. Final election results are scheduled to be released Wednesday, with possible adjustments following complaints of irregularities.

The current tally from the Central Elections Committee gives Likud 36 seats and its main rival, the Blue and White party, 35. Becoming prime minister, however, involves garnering at least a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, necessitating support from other parties. 

The already slim chance of a unity government between Likud and Blue and White faded Monday as Blue and White party leaders ruled it out, leaving Netanyahu with no clear path to a coalition except one that includes the far right and ultra-Orthodox.  

The United Right, a far-right faction that includes the extremist Jewish Power, campaigned on the claim that it needs to be in the government to stymie any concessions entailed in President Trump’s peace plan. 

“If Trump wants a peace plan to move forward, Netanyahu will want to oblige,” said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. He added, however, that a right-wing coalition probably would not object to a “process” — only “an actual step.”

Another possible road bump is Avigdor Liberman, who quit Netanyahu’s last government over the prime minister’s Gaza policy. Liberman’s party, Yisrael Beytenu, holds five seats, and he is widely expected to demand reinstatement as defense minister, with greater leverage over policy, in exchange for his support. At the same time, though, his fierce secularism will cause friction with ultra-Orthodox parties in a coalition.

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The biggest fault line “will be on issues of religion and state,” Hoffman said. 

Liberman’s base includes Russian immigrants, many of whom the ultra-Orthodox don’t recognize as Jews. Liberman campaigned for reelection on a platform of weakening the social influence of the ultra-Orthodox. 

On Monday evening, he said he would back Netanyahu but would not drop his demand for members of the ultra-Orthodox community to be drafted into the Israeli military, an issue that caused the last government to fall.  

The Haredim — the ultra-Orthodox religious parties whose support Netanyahu requires — have expanded their share of seats in the Knesset from 13 to 15, and possibly even to 16 with the latest readjustments.

“They will definitely have more power than they had last time,” said Israel Cohen, a commentator on the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol-Barama. “Though it will be interesting to see how Netanyahu will manage the Haredim on one side and Liberman on the other.”

The ultra-Orthodox will push for ministries and budget increases, said Tzippy Yarom, a reporter for the ultra-Orthodox magazine Mishpacha. “The fact that we got more power makes us very hopeful.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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