Israel's Netanyahu faces midnight deadline to form government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on trial for corruption. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a midnight deadline on Tuesday (May 4) to form a government, a daunting task that would likely require convincing the Jewish far-right to cooperate with an Islamic party.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, was given a 28-day window to forge a majority coalition following the March 23 general election, Israel's fourth inconclusive vote in less than two years.

The Prime Minister's right-wing Likud party won the most seats in the vote, but as results came, it became clear that he would again struggle to secure a majority in the 120-seat Parliament.

Over the past month, Israeli media has speculated about various possible deals that could see Netanyahu, 71, extend his record 12 consecutive years in power.

A coalition will likely require coming to terms with his estranged former protege Naftali Bennett, leader of the hawkish Yamina party.

It will also probably require persuading the far-right Religious Zionism alliance to tacitly cooperate with the Islamic conservative Raam party.

'End of Zionism'

Raam leader Mansour Abbas has said he would work with Netanyahu if that helped improve living standards for Israel's 20-per cent Arab minority.

But Religious Zionism has vowed not to join a government backed by Raam.

Orit Strok, a lawmaker from the party who lives in a settlement in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, told army radio that sitting with Raam would "bring a Trojan horse into the government of Israel" and mean "the end of Zionism".

Netanyahu said on Monday that he had offered Bennett to serve as premier ahead of him if that would help maintain the right's hold on power.

Bennett replied that he never asked Netanyahu for the opportunity to be prime minister.

"I asked him to form a government, which, unfortunately, he cannot do," Bennett said.

Political scientist Gayil Talshir of the Hebrew University said a Netanyahu-Bennett arrangement was doomed because it would require support from Likud defector Gideon Saar, whose New Hope party won six seats.

Saar has maintained that he is committed to ousting Netanyahu.

"Bennett did not say no to (Netanyahu's) offer, he just said it's not realistic," Talshir told AFP.

As his coalition talks faced roadblocks, Netanyahu has also floated the idea of passing legislation that would enable direct election of a prime minister.

He would need 61 Knesset votes to do it, unlikely given the election results, but Talshir said passing such legislation has emerged as Netanyahu's 11th-hour tactic.

A Netanyahu Parliament ally was making moves on Tuesday to force through such legislation, in a largely symbolic effort unlikely to pass, Israeli media reported.

Eyes on Lapid?

"As always, nobody knows what trick Netanyahu intends to pull out of his hat at the last minute," political commentator Sima Kadmon wrote in Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

In Maariv newspaper, influential columnist Ben Caspit argued that time was running out on the deeply divisive prime minister.

"Even his blindest followers are starting to see that the ship is sinking. Soon they'll begin jumping overboard," Caspit wrote.

Barring a breakthrough before midnight, President Reuven Rivlin can reclaim the mandate and give it to another lawmaker, or task the Knesset with selecting a candidate to form a government.

Experts have forecast that Rivlin will tap Yair Lapid, a former television presenter whose centrist Yesh Atid party finished second in the March vote.

"It's time for a new government," Lapid said.

"In one more day, if nothing happens, we will be faced with two options: an Israeli national unity government, solid, decent and hard working, or a fifth election."

The coalition deadline comes just days after 45 mainly ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrims were killed in a stampede in Mount Meron in northern Israel.

A government investigation has been opened into the tragedy, called one of Israel's worst peacetime disasters.

Lapid said it was "preventable", assigning blame in part to the fact that Israel "does not have a functioning government".

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