Netanyahu’s 28-day window to build a government after not winning an outright majority in March elections expired at midnight.
President Reuven Rivlin probably will now award the mandate to form a new government to one of the prime minister’s rival lawmakers, who are already trying to negotiate the first coalition to exclude Netanyahu in 12 years. Former news anchor Yair Lapid has emerged as the front-runner among them.
Not even a frenzy of last-minute proposals — including Netanyahu’s offer Monday to allow one of his rivals to take the top job for one year — managed to attract the support the prime minister needed in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Netanyahu pushed Tuesday for his Likud party to rush through a change in the law that would permit the direct election of prime ministers, allowing him to bypass parliamentary negotiations entirely.
One after another, the prime minister’s potential partners responded to his overtures with the message, essentially, that they don’t trust him to keep his promises.
“A critical mass has been reached,” political analyst Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv newspaper. “Nobody believes a single word he says; there isn’t a single sap in the entire political establishment who will agree to any arrangement with him. He is going to need a miracle to create a new rabbit.”
But Netanyahu’s reputation as a political escape artist meant that Israelis were riveted to the last hours of negotiations. It remains unclear whether the constellation of right-wing, left-of-center and Arab parties that make up the anti-Netanyahu “Change Coalition” will be able to cobble together a power-sharing agreement.
The uncertainty is familiar to Israelis, who have endured four inconclusive national elections in the past two years, a period of political paralysis. Netanyahu has remained at the head of mostly caretaker governments as budgets and planning have been largely frozen at a time of regional instability and a worldwide pandemic. Even an emergency unity government formed early in the coronavirus outbreak last year did not pass a budget and collapsed amid infighting after seven months.
Netanyahu, seeking to expand his base of support, campaigned at both ends of the political spectrum. He ran with an extremist right-wing Jewish party that calls for expelling Arabs from Israel but also embraced an Israeli Arab party led by Islamists.
Both parties did well enough in the election to control parliamentary seats, but the far-right parties have blocked Netanyahu’s attempts to form a government with support of the Arab party, which they call “supporters of terrorism.”
Negotiations among the party leaders who would replace Netanyahu are also daunting. They include former defense minister Naftali Bennett and former education minister Gideon Saar, both onetime Netanyahu allies. Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who control a block of centrist seats, will have to overcome the bitter split they suffered when Gantz agreed last year to join Netanyahu’s emergency unity government.
Also in the mix are Israeli Arab parties, which have never been part of a governing coalition but may be crucial to forming one this time. Some combination of these disparate factions will have to find a way to make common cause if they want to end Netanyahu’s historic run.
If their negotiations fail, Netanyahu’s term as prime minister could be extended in another way — by sending the country to its fifth election.
The deadline comes as the country is still reeling from a deadly stampede at a religious festival that left 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews dead. The tragedy raised questions about government safety oversight as well as the autonomy that Netanyahu and other leaders have granted ultra-Orthodox leaders, who have been a key part of his ruling coalition.
And as with previous post-election horse trading, this iteration is unfolding as Netanyahu is on trial in a Jerusalem court on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His opponents accuse him of seeking to extend his rule to influence the judicial process. He has sought to pass legislation that would make sitting prime ministers immune from prosecution, and he was blocked by Israel’s high court last week from trying to appoint a political ally as justice minister.