At the stroke of midnight at the end of the day Tuesday, the 28 days that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was granted to form a new government officially end. And as the clock winds down, Netanyahu is attempting everything he possibly can to stop Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid from getting a chance to form a government.
Netanyahu is afraid that if President Reuven Rivlin officially tasks Lapid on Wednesday with forming a government, Lapid will convince Yamina party chairman Naftali Bennett to enter into a rotation agreement with him, in which they would divide the term as prime minister – handing Israel a new prime minister for the first time in more than 12 years. The current occupant of the Prime Minister's Residence is determined not to let that happen, and as of Tuesday morning, he was entertaining various paths to head off a new government headed by Bennett and Lapid.
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Netanyahu's best scenario would have been forming a government of his own. He has attempted that for the past 28 days, but so far, he has failed to convince far-right Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich to join a government that would rely on the support of the Islamist United Arab List. Smotrich views such a government as “a danger to Israel” and has promised to “prevent it from being formed.”
In one last-minute act of desperation, it's possible that sometime on Tuesday, Netanyahu could announce that he has actually managed to form a government, despite Smotrich’s stated position. He would then present such a government to the Knesset for its support. In such a scenario, Smotrich and Bennett, both of whom lead small right-wing parties that before and after the March 23 election had promised to join a right-wing government if one was formed, will be put to a test: If they abstain or vote against it, Netanyahu will publicly blame them for “preventing a right-wing government from being formed.”
Smotrich could argue in response that a government that is reliant on Islamists’ support is not truly right-wing, while Bennett might claim that Netanyahu is engaging in a political stunt rather than attempting to actually form a government. The chances of Netanyahu making such a move are slim, but some Knesset members from his Likud party have floated the idea recently in media briefings.
A likelier route for Netanyahu would be an attempt to have Bennett rather than Lapid tapped by President Rivlin to form a government. When Israel’s party leaders met with Rivlin after the March 23 election and recommended to the president who should be tasked with forming a government, Netanyahu received 52 recommendations, compared to Lapid's 45. That prompted Rivlin to give Netanyahu the first chance at forming a government. But it also means that if Netanyahu indeed fails in the task by the end of the day, the president is very likely to give Lapid the next shot.
In recent days, a new idea has been floated by sources close to Netanyahu: that the 52 Knesset members who recommended Netanyahu the last time around would go to Rivlin on Wednesday and all recommend Bennett as their candidate to get the next shot. If Bennett’s own Yamina party, with its seven Knesset seats, joins the effort, that would hand Bennett 59 recommendations, a number that Lapid is very unlikely to surpass, even if he manages to gain the support of parties that abstained last time around.
In such a scenario, there would be public pressure on Rivlin to tap Bennett rather than Lapid. Rivlin is not legally obliged to base his decision on the numbers, so success in convincing Rivlin to take that route is far from assured. But Likud might attempt it, for one simple reason: the party whose leader gets tasked with forming a government automatically controls the Knesset Arrangements Committee, which controls the legislative process until a new government is sworn in.
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If on the other hand, Lapid is tasked with forming a government, his Yesh Atid party would control the committee, along with the Knesset's entire legislative process. Netanyahu prefers a scenario where Bennett receives the mandate, because the premier still hopes he can convince his former ally to support a bill for direct elections for the role of prime minister – instead of joining a coalition with Lapid. Such legislation would provide for the election of the prime minister without a new election for the Knesset.
Netanyahu has been touting the idea for weeks, since it became clear that he would have a tough time forming a government that he would lead. There are constitutional, legal and political issues that might stand in the way of such legislation, but in the worst case scenario for Netanyahu, it would buy him time and prevent Lapid and Bennett from joining forces to replace him.
None of Netanyahu's plans can be achieved, however, if Lapid’s party controls the legislative process. Likud announced on Tuesday that it would bring a bill for the direct election of the prime minister to a vote during the course of the day, in an attempt to force Bennett’s hand.
And last but not least, Netanyahu could try to lure defectors from Bennett’s party by offering to have them join Likud instead of following their party leader into a government with Lapid. Several names, including Ayelet Shaked, Bennett’s close political partner in Yamina, have been mentioned in recent days in connection with such an effort. If Netanyahu succeeds, it wouldn’t give him a government, but it would make it more difficult for Lapid and Bennett to form one of their own.