Members of Israel’s legislative branch were sworn in April 6 based on the March election results. Also based on the unclear election outcome, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin chose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to cobble together an executive branch, despite doubt of the prime minister’s ability to accomplish that since only 52 Knesset members recommended that he continue as prime minister. Netanyahu needs at least 61 supportive members to achieve a parliamentary majority.
“No candidate has a realistic chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of the Knesset,” Rivlin said. According to Israeli law, Netanyahu has 28 days in which to succeed, with the possibility of a two-week extension.
Rivlin and many others lacked confidence in Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new government because, at the same time the legislative and executive branches were moving forward, so was the judicial branch. In Jerusalem District Court, witnesses were being called to testify against Netanyahu in his fraud, breach of trust and bribery trial.
Indeed, Rivlin said he had “moral and ethical” reservations for handing the mandate to Netanyahu in light of his corruption trial. “I fear for my country. But I am doing what is required of me as president of the State of Israel.”
Eli Sperling, Israel specialist for the Center for Israel Education in Atlanta, called it “another bizarre day in Israeli politics.” He noted, “You could see in Rivlin’s eyes pain beyond his words. He begrudgingly gave the mandate” to Netanyahu. Sperling suggested that Rivlin chose that option over his “own moral quandaries” because “Rivlin is an institutionalist” who wanted to protect the presidency of the country even though it’s basically a ceremonial role.
“It was still a remarkable speech to the extent that Rivlin was willing to express his frustrations” with the fact that Israel has now voted in four elections in about two years, all ending in inconclusive outcomes, said Sperling, who is now a postdoctoral associate at Duke University. Three times out of those four elections no Knesset member was able to construct a coalition. Last year, the two largest parties combined to create a government, but it only lasted five months.
According to Sperling, “it’s hard to imagine how any of the options [available now] would result in a functional government.”
Israeli law stipulates that Netanyahu has 28 days in which to cobble together a government. If necessary, he could ask for an additional 14 days. If he’s still unable to construct a coalition, Rivlin could ask either another Knesset member to make the same attempt, over the same amount of time, or send the mandate to the Knesset, giving that body 21 days to agree on a candidate supported by 61 members. In any case, if the second person tasked with forming a government fails, the mandate automatically goes to the Knesset.
If the Knesset isn’t able to agree on a candidate, after 21 days, the Knesset automatically disbands and Israel heads to elections for the fifth time in three years.
Soon after the March 23 election, the Israel Democracy Institute published its Israeli Voice Index for the month, which indicated that 80 percent of Israelis believed there will be a fifth election in the coming months. More than two-thirds of those surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with the election results, with displeasure higher among Jews (72 percent) than among Arabs (50 percent).
The main issue in the March 23 election was whether Netanyahu should continue serving as the country’s prime minister. Sperling said the testimony against Netanyahu in the first days of the trial were “pretty damning.” Based on the corruption trial of the last prime minister, Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s trial could take years before resolution.
Until a new government is formed, however, Netanyahu continues to lead an interim government. During a temporary government, however, national budgets cannot be passed, nor investments made in infrastructure, Sperling noted.
The only optimism that Sperling could find is that “Netanyahu won’t be around forever. There will be a future without Bibi,” referring to the prime minister by his nickname. In that future, Sperling suggested that “the left [parties] could come back after Netanyahu with more focus on social and economic issues,” and he predicted that “we’re going to see new alliances formed with the Arab parties.”
In the recent election campaign, even Netanyahu courted one of the Israeli Arab parties and its voters.
If a coalition between the Zionist parties and Arab parties could be created, Sperling said, “that could be quite positive for Israel.”