Israel’s president has tasked the head of the opposition, Yair Lapid, with forming a government after Benjamin Netanyahu failed to do so, leaving the country’s longest-serving leader facing a fresh challenge to his historic hold on power.
Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party won the most seats in a March election and was given 28 days to build a majority coalition government. But that deadline passed on Tuesday, allowing Reuven Rivlin to choose another candidate.
Rivlin, whose role is usually ceremonial but has played a key part in a political stalemate that has seen four snap elections since 2019, spent the day consulting with politicians elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
On Wednesday evening, Rivlin announced he had tapped Lapid, a former TV host and finance minister whose Yesh Atid party came second in the last election, although he acknowledged he too might fail.
“[It] is clear that … Yair Lapid could form a government that has the confidence of the Knesset, despite there being many difficulties,” said Rivlin.
“My fellow Israelis, we have been caught in a maze – if not a political crisis – for some time now,” he added. “But we must not allow these difficulties to undermine our faith that we are on the right path, and that we can continue to build the sovereignty of the Israeli people here.”
Lapid, who is popular with secular middle-class Israelis, welcomed the move. “After two years of political paralysis, Israeli society is hurting,” he said in a statement.
He added he would contact parliamentarians across the Israeli political spectrum in the hopes of forming a coalition. “A unity government isn’t a compromise or a last resort – it’s a goal, it’s what we need,” Lapid said.
Lapid is seen domestically as a centrist and supports negotiations with the Palestinians, although he also described himself as a “security hawk”. Whoever leads the next government is expected to continue to take a hard line on the continuing occupation over Palestinians.
One potential kingmaker, who Lapid will court, is the far-right former settler leader and defence minister Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu said he had suggested a deal in which Bennett becomes prime minister for a year and then hands back power, but it was swiftly rejected. A similar “rotation” deal between Bennett and Lapid could be a possibility.
With 28 days to form a government or risk a fifth election, Lapid will face tough negotiations while Netanyahu seeks to block his path to high office, as he successfully did with Lapid’s predecessor, Benny Gantz.
During the past four weeks, Netanyahu had hoped to persuade both allies and foes to join him in government, but the makeup of the Knesset made negotiations tough.
The 71-year-old’s best chance of reaching a 61-seat majority in the Knesset appeared to be an unusual alliance between far-right Jewish politicians and a conservative Islamist party, called the United Arab List, or Ra’am in Hebrew.
Complicating those efforts and part of the reason for the political stalemate is Netanyahu’s corruption case. While he denies the charges, some politicians have pledged not to serve under a prime minister who is on trial.