A week after his party came out on top in national elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally tapped Wednesday to form Israel’s next government, his fourth since 1996.
President Reuven Rivlin made the decision after meeting this week with members of more than a dozen political parties to hear them out. Factions representing a majority -- 67 lawmakers in the 120-seat parliament -- backed Netanyahu as the next prime minister.
Israeli law does not oblige the president to assign the task of forming the government to the party that won the largest share of votes, in this case Netanyahu’s Likud. But Rivlin noted that "in a democracy, the majority decides, and the majority spoke its piece clearly in these elections.”
Netanyahu won the nation’s trust and the “heavy responsibility to form a stable, as broadly based a government as possible -- and swiftly,” the president said.
Rivlin identified three main issues as the new government’s immediate tasks, each implying criticism of Netanyahu’s previous policies.
Against the backdrop of the deepening rift between Israel and the U.S. administration, Rivlin urged the new government to prioritize “fortifying relations between Israel and the U.S., the biggest and most important of our friends.”
He also called on Netanyahu to restore public trust in the political system, after the outgoing government collapsed and turbulent elections were held two years ahead of schedule. “We cannot have elections again in another two years,” said Rivlin.
Rivlin also said the new government must heal the wounds in society aggravated during the recent election campaign.
“From every direction, things were said which ought not to have been said -- not in a Jewish state, and not in a democratic state,” the president said.
Netanyahu has expressed regret for warning about Israel’s Arab citizens going to the polls "in droves" on election day, but the controversy lingers both in Israel and abroad.
Accepting Rivlin’s appointment to form the next coalition, Netanyahu thanked Israeli citizens for their trust, pledged to “mend the rifts” between different segments of society and called for putting election divisions behind.
Netanyahu said that “Israel’s hand remains extended in peace to our Palestinian neighbors” but that security was the basis for hope of a genuine peace.
Referring to relations with the U.S., Netanyahu said, “We deeply value the alliance with our greatest of friends and will act to preserve it.” At the same time, he pledged to continue efforts to prevent an “emerging deal with Iran that endangers us, our neighbors and the world.”
Netanyahu will have several weeks to negotiate with potential members of his coalition to reconcile demands over appointments and ideological positions and ensure a stable government.
The government was expected to be based on Likud and five smaller parties, including hawkish, religious or right-leaning factions that Netanyahu refers to as “natural partners.”
Even before Wednesday’s announcement, Netanyahu held a first round of talks with other parties and began divvying positions, including pledging the Finance Ministry post to Moshe Kahlon, whose 10-seat centrist Kulanu will join the coalition. Netanyahu was scheduled to begin formal coalition negotiations Thursday.
The bargaining over agendas, appointments and budgets could prolong the talks until May 7, the deadline for forming a government.
Netanyahu’s next government could face an uphill diplomatic battle with the international community on the Palestinian issue. In addition to the widening abyss between the White House and Netanyahu, Israel may be facing pressure from the European Union concerning policies in East Jerusalem.
Construction plans for Jewish developments in East Jerusalem have been a constant source of tension between Israel and both the U.S. and Europe, especially announcements that have come at particularly sensitive times.
A government planning committee meeting scheduled to advance approval for the construction of 1,500 apartments in Har Homa -- a large Jewish project on land annexed to Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East War -- was canceled to avoid attracting further international pressure while the government was being formed, Israeli news reports said Wednesday.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.