President Rivlin began the process of consulting party representatives on Monday with a despondent statement: At the moment, he sees no path to forming a government. This was an obvious, but, at the same time, significant statement by the president, who is responsible for tasking a specific lawmaker with forming a government.
Likud's representatives told Rivlin that they will only support a government led by Netanyahu, even after Rivlin hinted that "ethical considerations," a veiled reference to Netanyahu's legal troubles, could impact his decision. Next, the representatives of Yesh Atid said they will support their party's leader, Yair Lapid, even though his chances to coalesce a majority behind him are almost nonexistent.
These early meetings in a packed day of consultations with lawmakers from 13 different parties were enough for Rivlin to conclude that Israel is likely to maintain its political deadlock and is possibly headed to a fifth election. The people, he warned, dread this option, but the election results make it almost inevitable.
This is the fifth time since becoming president in 2014, and the fourth time in the last two years, that Rivlin is forced to engage in this process. But this time may be different than those prior. This time, Rivlin could choose to play a bolder and more active role in the process, potentially angering large segments of the public.
After the 'first' election of 2019, the representatives of parties who won 61 seats, recommended Netanyahu to Rivlin to be the next prime minister. This left Rivlin with no choice but to give Netanyahu the mandate to try and form a government. But Netanyahu then was unable to do so after Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman decided to break off his party from the religious right-wing bloc, leading Israel to an unprecedented second election in September of that year.
The second election ended inconclusively, with neither Netanyahu nor Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz winning the support of 61 out of the Knesset's 120 lawmakers during party consultations. Rivlin tried to act as a mediator between Gantz and Netanyahu and hoped to convince them to form a unity government, but the effort failed and a third election was called.
After that election, in March of last year, Gantz received the support of 61 lawmakers, which meant that Rivlin again had no choice but to task him with forming a government. Gantz then used the mandate in order to negotiate a unity government with Netanyahu, to the disappointment of the vast majority of his voters. This government, however, lasted less than a year, and its collapse led Israel to a fourth election and the current political stalemate.
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One thing is now clear: In this round of consultations, no party leader will get to the magic number of 61, like Gantz did last time and Netanyahu did in April 2019. This gives Rivlin greater freedom to use his own judgement, regardless of the final tally, which will only be known at around 8 P.M. Israel time when the smallest party, the United Arab List, will meet with the president.
What can Rivlin do in such a situation? He can begin by ignoring the unwritten and non-binding convention that the lawmaker with the highest number of recommendations from party members, gets the first crack at forming a government. When that lawmaker, most likely Netanyahu, falls short of gaining the support of 61 lawmakers, Rivlin can intervene on the basis that they won't have majority support. The law clearly allows him to do so.
Rivlin can also make good on his insinuation from his conversation with Likud members Monday morning – refuse to appoint Netanyahu due to the prime minister's corruption trial, which incidentally entered a dramatic phase this morning. Such a statement from Rivlin could cause a political earthquake and spark great anger among Netanyahu's supporters in the media, but it could also finally trigger a political solution to Israel's endless cycle of elections.
Rivlin's seven year term as president will end this summer. If Israel goes to a fifth election, it will be his unknown successor who will have to meet the party leaders at the next round of consultations. This is Rivlin's last chance to try and solve the current impasse. He knows how detrimental the political crisis has been to Israel's strength as a country. He knows what it means for the country to operate with no state budget, no justice minister, no ambassadors in dozens of countries, all because of Netanyahu's obstruction to forming a stable government.
Now, the question of the day is: will he finally take action?