President Reuven Rivlin began meeting representatives from Israel’s political parties on Monday, the first step towards the formation of a government following last week’s elections.
The 11 parties that won seats in the Knesset sat down individually with Mr Rivlin in order of size, led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, which emerged from the often-bitter contest as the winner with 36 seats.
Rightwing Likud and its religious and nationalist allies together won a clear majority of 65 seats in the 120-member parliament, putting Mr Netanyahu in the driving seat for a fourth consecutive term as prime minister.
No Israeli party has ever won an outright Knesset majority, requiring coalitions to be assembled from smaller parties. Each party will recommend to Mr Rivlin their candidate to form a governing coalition. Neither Mr Netanyahu nor his main opponent from the Blue and White party, the former army chief Benny Gantz, attended Monday’s meetings. Blue and White won 35 seats.
“The Israeli elections are over, but have not been completed,” Mr Rivlin said at the start of his meeting with the Likud officials. “We are here today in order to begin the process, which is meant to reflect the will of the citizens of the state.”
Once chosen, the candidate has a month to assemble a coalition that can command a parliamentary majority.
Mr Netanyahu criticised Mr Rivlin, a former Likud politician, in his campaign, saying the president was “looking for an excuse” to give the formation of a government to Mr Gantz.
However, Mr Netanyahu is expected to be able to form a government with the ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties, whom he has referred to as his “natural” allies, including finance minister Moshe Kahlon’s economy-minded Kulanu party, which won four seats.
“Netanyahu is in a much better position now with a smaller majority of 65 than he was before with the majority of 67 when Kahlon had 10 seats and was the kingmaker,” said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “So in this strategic game, Netanyahu is better off.”
The rightwing parties are expected to begin trading ministerial portfolios in exchange for allegiance after the week-long Passover holiday that begins on Friday.
A fourth consecutive term as prime minister puts Mr Netanyahu on track to succeed founding premier David Ben-Gurion as the country’s longest-serving leader. Ben-Gurion was prime minister for 13 years and 127 days from 1948-1954 and 1955-1963. Mr Netanyahu, who also served a term as prime minister in the 1990s, would surpass that achievement in July.
But Mr Netanyahu would be taking office under the shadow of corruption charges, after the attorney-general recommended in February that he be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending a hearing. A date for that hearing has not been set yet, but has to take place before mid-July. Mr Netanyahu has denied all the charges and said they are politically motivated.
Prof Hazan said Mr Netanyahu’s legal woes could prove a complication for his government further down the line. “Keeping the government together because of the legal issues is going to make this a very interesting year,” he said.
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