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Netanyahu misses deadline to form Israel government

Benjamin Netanyahu' could be pushed into opposition for the first time in 12 years. Photo: AP Photo: AP
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to meet a midnight deadline to put together a new governing coalition, raising the possibility that his Likud party could be pushed into the opposition for the first time in 12 years.

The deadline closed a four-week window granted to Netanyahu by Israel’s figurehead president. The matter now bounces back to President Reuven Rivlin, who announced just after midnight on Tuesday (local time) that he would contact the 13 parties with seats in parliament to discuss “the continuation of the process of forming a government”.

Mr Rivlin is expected in the coming days to give one of Mr Netanyahu’s opponents a chance to form an alternative coalition government. He also could ask the parliament to select one of its own members as Prime Minister. If all else fails, the country would be forced into another election this autumn – the fifth in just over two years.

The turmoil does not mean that Netanyahu will immediately be forced out as Prime Minister. But he now faces a serious threat to his lengthy rule. His opponents, despite deep ideological differences, already have been holding informal talks in recent weeks in hopes of forging a power-sharing agreement.

Mr Netanyahu had struggled to secure a parliamentary majority since March 23 – when elections ended in deadlock for the fourth consecutive time in the past two years.

Despite repeated meetings with many of his rivals and unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party, Mr Netanyahu was unable to close a deal.

Mr Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first chance to form a coalition after 52 members of parliament endorsed him as prime minister last month. That was short of a majority, but the highest number for any party leader.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who received the backing of 45 lawmakers, now seems to be the most likely candidate to get a chance to form a government.

Naftali Bennett, head of the small religious, nationalist Yamina party, is also a possibility. Mr Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally turned rival, controls just seven seats in parliament, but he has emerged as a kingmaker of sorts and appears to carry the votes that Lapid would need to secure a parliamentary majority.

Mr Lapid already has said he is ready to share the Prime Minister’s job with Mr Bennett, with Mr Bennett serving first in a rotation. So far, they have not reached any firm agreements.

In a brief statement, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party blamed Mr Bennett for the Prime Minister’s failure.

“Because of Bennett’s refusal to commit to a right-wing government, something that would have certainly lead to the formation of a government along with other members of Knesset, Prime Minister Netanyahu returned the mandate to the president,” the statement said.

Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, with the last four elections all seen as a referendum on his rule.

Most of his struggles stemmed from obstacles created by former allies in his own religious and nationalist base.

Looming over Mr Netanyahu has been his corruption trial. He has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and bribery in a series of scandals.

The trial has moved into the witness phase, with embarrassing testimony accusing him of trading favours with a powerful media mogul.

Mr Netanyahu denies the charges.