Explainer

Netanyahu Has Five Days to Form a Government. What Happens if He Fails?

Negotiations are at a deadlock and the clock is ticking. Here are the possible scenarios for forming a governing coalition

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin gestures towards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the former's residence in Jerusalem, April 17, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

About a month ago, President Reuven Rivlin tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming Israel’s 35th government. After receiving an extension, Netanyahu has until this Wednesday, May 29, to complete the undertaking. But it looks like coalition negotiations have reached an impasse, and Netanyahu is having a hard time coming to an agreement with Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman.

Haaretz examined the possible scenarios that could unfold in case Netanyahu does not succeed in forming a majority government of 61 seats.

Can Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swear in a new government of only 60 (out of 120) Knesset members?

A coalition government does not need the support of a majority of MKs, 61 or more, but it must pass a vote of confidence in the Knesset. Netanyahu can form a coalition of fewer than 61 MKs if the opposition gives him a “safety net” and votes for the new government.

The phrasing of the Basic Law on the Knesset is ambiguous and does not explicitly state the number of MKs needed for the initial vote of confidence to establish a new government – but the laws relating to a number of other procedures in the Knesset would seem to indicate that the majority of MKs would need to vote in favor. For example, the law requires a majority of at least 61 MKs to pass a vote of no confidence to replace the government.

Can Netanyahu bypass the president’s decisions and call a new election?

The Basic Law on the Knesset allows the Knesset to bypass all attempts to establish a new government by passing a law to dissolve the present Knesset and hold new elections. This means that if Netanyahu can enlist a regular majority in the Knesset (more MKs voting in favor than opposed, without requiring an absolute majority), then new elections will be held, regardless of what Rivlin decides. Right-wing parties have signaled their intention to promote such an initiative for new elections in the past few days. On Friday morning, Yisrael Beiteinu leader MK Avigdor Lieberman said in a Facebook post that his party would not support any candidate for prime minister other than Netanyahu – but would choose new elections if the draft law is not passed in its present form.

What happens if 60 MKs vote in favor of the new government and 60 vote against it? For example, if Lieberman joins the opposition?

As with any other vote in the Knesset or its committees, a tied vote is the same as a vote against the proposal, meaning that it would not be approved.

Who will Rivlin give the task of forming a new government to if Netanyahu does not manage to do so?

If Netanyahu informs the president that he has failed in his attempts to form a new government, Rivlin will open a new round of consultations with the heads of all the Knesset parties and then give the mandate to form a new government to another MK who agrees to do it. At this stage, Netanyahu cannot receive another extension from the president. The new candidate will have 28 days to form a new government coalition.

Can Gideon Sa’ar receive the opportunity to form the government if Netanyahu fails?

Rivlin could give the task to any MK, including an MK from Likud who is not Netanyahu. But the Likud party constitution requires that its candidate for prime minister to be the party chairman – and it's unclear how the party could continue to function in such a scenario, unless the present chairman, Netanyahu, resigns from his post first.

Can Rivlin give the task of forming a government to Netanyahu again?

The law describes a single scenario in which Netanyahu might be able to receive the mandate to form a government one more time: If after the consultations with the parties, the president reaches the conclusion that no other candidate has a reasonable chance of forming a government. Another possibility is if 61 MKs write a joint letter to the president within 21 days, in which they all agree to recommend a specific candidate for prime minister. This candidate could be Netanyahu, even if he had failed in his previous attempts to form a government and even if he had received an extension to do so and failed. Such a candidate would be given a short period of only two weeks to try and establish a new government.

What happens if no MK manages to form a government?

If the president is unable to find a candidate who has a reasonable chance to do so, or the candidates he has given the task to – up to three in total – have failed to do so, the president will inform the Knesset Speaker of this and the Knesset will be dissolved. By law, in such a case new elections must be held within three months.