Israel's Netanyahu fights for political survival as coalition deadline looms

Political deadlock raises the prospect of a fifth election within months

FILE - In this Wednesday, April 14, 2021 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Memorial Day ceremony at the military cemetery at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem. Netanyahu faces a midnight deadline on Tuesday, May 4, to put together a new coalition government. If he fails, he faces the possibility of leading his Likud party into the opposition for the first time in 12 years. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool, File)
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was racing against the clock to clinch a coalition government on Tuesday, ahead of a midnight deadline which could see the task fall to his rivals.

Four weeks after being tapped to form a government following the fourth inconclusive elections in two years, Israel’s longest-serving premier has failed to garner enough parliamentary seats to lead the country.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud emerged from the March 23 elections as the largest party, with 30 seats, but he has failed to convince enough smaller parties to unite and form a 61-seat majority.

“It’s time for a new government,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid, at the premier’s heels.

The leader of the Yesh Atid party, which picked up 17 seats, Mr Lapid is seen as the most likely candidate to step into the incumbent’s shoes.

He has sought to pull together the eclectic array of political figures wanting to oust Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption.

"There is a historic opportunity… To unite religious and secular, left and right and centre,” Mr Lapid said.

Such a scenario could be far off, however, not least because the opposition camp is still scrambling to secure its own 61 seats.

President Reuven Rivlin may grant Mr Netanyahu a two-week extension, ask another candidate to form a government or hand the task over to parliament.

It could fall to leaders whose parties have just a handful of seats to determine Israel’s political future, such as Naftali Bennett who heads the right-wing Yamina party.

Mr Netanyahu this week promised his former protege a year as prime minister if Yamina’s seven seats joined his coalition, an offer rejected by Mr Bennett.

"I asked him to form a government, which, unfortunately, he cannot do," Mr Bennett said, raising the prospect of joining a coalition with Mr Lapid.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool/File Photo

But it would take more than Yamina’s support to keep Mr Netanyahu in power, prompting him to court Islamist leader Mansour Abbas to make up the numbers.

The unusual move by the right-wing prime minister came after Mr Abbas broke away from the Arab-led Joint List, pledging to work with any leader to get his community’s demands on the agenda.

The four seats from his Ra’am party could prove decisive, but a pact with Mr Netanyahu is vehemently opposed by the far-right Religious Zionism alliance, which supports Likud.

With divisions so deeply entrenched, voters may be lining up at polling stations again within months.

Israel’s president warned of such deadlock a month ago when nominating Mr Netanyahu to form a government.

“The results of the consultations, that were open to all, lead me to believe that no candidate has a realistic chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of the Knesset,” Mr Rivlin said, referring to Israel’s parliament.

While a fifth election would undoubtedly prolong Israel’s political crisis, it would allow Mr Netanyahu to continue fighting his corruption trial as prime minister.

He has so far refused to step down to face multiple graft charges over allegations of seeking positive media coverage and receiving lavish gifts while in office.