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Israel’s president calls for new alliances to solve yet another election deadlock

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, shown on March 18, says he’ll choose a candidate for prime minister he believes can overcome past grievances, forge “unconventional” alliances and is most likely to form a government.
(Ludovic Marin / Pool Photo)

President Reuven Rivlin expressed his frustration with Israel’s deadlocked political system on Wednesday, saying he’ll choose a candidate for prime minister he believes can overcome past grievances, forge “unconventional” alliances and is most likely to form a government.

He spoke a week after Israel’s fourth inconclusive election and days before he gives a party leader the daunting task of trying to form a majority coalition in the parliament, or Knesset.

That process will begin with two days of consultations with party leaders and coincide with the resumption of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial. The court proceeding, coupled with the coronavirus crisis, has exposed deep divisions in Israeli society.

Rivlin said Wednesday that his decision will be based on which party leader can “earn the trust of the Knesset” and build “a government that will succeed in mending the rifts between us and rehabilitate Israeli society.”

That, he said during the official presentation of election results, is what Israelis want, rather than an unprecedented fifth consecutive log-jammed election.

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Rivlin is obligated by law to choose the party leader he thinks has the best chance at forming a government.

In most cases, that choice falls to the leader of the largest party, in this case Netanyahu’s Likud. But last week’s election yielded a fragmented parliament with 13 parties, none of which has a clear path to forming a coalition.

The outcome of Israel’s latest election now appears to rest in the hands of small parties, in particular an upstart Arab Islamist group.

Late Wednesday, Netanyahu broke a period of relative postelection quiet by appealing to two former allies to “come home” and support him.

Gideon Saar and Naftali Bennett are former Netanyahu aides who share the prime minister’s nationalistic ideology but broke away to form their own parties after bitter breakups with the prime minister.

Saar has vowed never to sit in a Netanyahu-led government, while Bennett has not committed either way.

In a nationally televised statement, Netanyahu called on the two to put aside their differences with him. “I call on you, come home to your natural place, on the right,” he said. “Let’s unite and together form a stable national government.”

Bennett quickly responded, saying he was committed to forming a government focused on “rescuing Israel from the chaos.” Saar, meanwhile, rejected the overture, repeating his campaign promise to not serve in a Netanyahu government.

Earlier, senior Likud officials pushed back against Rivlin’s remarks, suggesting that as the largest party in the Knesset with 30 seats, it should get the first chance at forming a government.

“The president does not determine the results of the election! He must not be a political actor,” Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said in a joint statement.

Netanyahu’s religious and nationalist allies are more ideologically aligned. But even with their support, he has secured only 52 seats in parliament — well short of the required 61-seat majority.

Uncertainty hovers over Israel’s parliamentary election, the country’s fourth referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership in two years.

His opponents won 57 seats, also short of a majority, while two parties have not committed to either side.

The prime minister’s opponents, some of them onetime allies, campaigned on the idea that he’s no longer fit to serve. Part of their argument centers on charges against Netanyahu of fraud, breach of trust and bribe-taking. He has denied all charges and accuses the media, law enforcement and the justice system of a “witch hunt” to remove him from office.

But the ethics questions will share the spotlight with Rivlin’s deliberations as Netanyahu appears in court for a new phase in his trial.

Despite their larger numbers, Netanyahu’s opponents have little in common other than their opposition to him.

The party leaders are now negotiating terms of any such alliances. Two parties — the right-wing Yamina and an Arab Islamist one — have not committed to either side and could potentially play kingmakers.

While Rivlin’s position is largely ceremonial, he has taken an active role in previous elections in trying to get party leaders to form a government and break the cycle of repeat balloting. Last year, he urged the leaders to “get a grip” and stop their bickering.

It wasn’t to be. An alliance between Netanyahu and his main rival, meant to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis, was beset by infighting and collapsed in December. Rivlin urged the party leaders to get over their rivalries and listen to weary Israeli voters.

“I am hopeful that those elected by the public will succeed in hearing the people of Israel, be wise enough to hear its demand for unconventional unions, for cooperation crossing sectors, for constructive and devoted work for the sake of Israeli citizens,” Rivlin said.


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