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Netanyahu told to build coalition

After 4th vote, Israeli premier tasked with uniting rivals by The Associated Press | April 7, 2021 at 4:42 a.m.
Israeli Knesset member Naftali Bennett from the Yamina party, center, attends the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)

JERUSALEM -- Israel's president on Tuesday handed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the difficult task of trying to form a new government, giving the Israeli leader a chance to extend his lengthy term in office.

But with the newly elected parliament deeply divided and the prime minister on trial for corruption charges, Netanyahu had little to celebrate.

He now has up to six weeks to form his political foes into a coalition. At the same time, those opponents will be working to form an alternative government that could end his 12-year reign.

In a meeting with members of his Likud party, Netanyahu said he would be the prime minister of all of Israel's citizens, Jewish and Arab, religious and secular.

"We will take care of everyone," he said, vowing to "take Israel out of the cycle of recurring elections and to establish a strong government for all citizens of Israel."

President Reuven Rivlin turned to Netanyahu in the wake of Israel's fourth inconclusive election in the past two years.

In a post-election ritual, Rivlin had consulted Monday with each of the 13 parties elected to the Knesset, or parliament, in hopes of finding a consensus on a candidate for prime minister. But neither Netanyahu, nor his main rival, Yair Lapid, received the endorsement of a majority of lawmakers.

As he announced his decision Tuesday, Rivlin said no candidate had the support needed to form a majority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset. He also noted that there are many misgivings about Netanyahu remaining in office while on trial.

Yet he said there was nothing in the law preventing Netanyahu from continuing as prime minister and said he believed that Netanyahu had a better chance than his rivals of cobbling together a coalition.

"This is not an easy decision on a moral and ethical basis," Rivlin said. "The state of Israel is not to be taken for granted. And I fear for my country."

Netanyahu did not attend Tuesday's announcement, as is tradition, and later Rivlin did not appear with Netanyahu in the usual photo of the new parliament's swearing-in -- moves local media interpreted as a show of the president's unhappiness with the situation.

Netanyahu now has an initial period of 28 days to put together a coalition, a period that Rivlin could extend for an additional two weeks.

Netanyahu has received the endorsement of 52 lawmakers, more than his rivals, but still short of the 61-seat majority needed to form a government.

Securing the support of nine more lawmakers will not be easy. Netanyahu will use his formidable powers of persuasion, coupled with generous offers of powerful government ministries, to court his potential partners.

Netanyahu will likely require the backing of Raam, a small Arab Islamist party. Raam's leader, Mansour Abbas, has left the door open to cooperating with Netanyahu if he aids Israel's Arab sector, which has long suffered from crime, discrimination and poverty.

But one of Netanyahu's allies, the Religious Zionist party, has an openly racist platform and refuses to serve in a government with Arab partners. Netanyahu could appeal to the rabbis who serve as the party's spiritual guides in hopes of changing minds.

Netanyahu will also likely need the support of Yamina, a religious nationalist party led by former ally turned rival, Naftali Bennett, who also has been cool to an alliance with Arab parties.

Bennett, a former aide to Netanyahu, promised Tuesday to negotiate in "good faith," but made no promises to his former mentor.

Netanyahu's last hope will be to try to lure "defectors" from other opposition parties. For now, however, Netanyahu's opponents have vowed to stand firm, especially after the experience of the previous government.

After elections last year, Netanyahu and his main rival at the time, Benny Gantz, agreed to an "emergency" government to confront the coronavirus crisis. Their partnership was plagued by infighting and collapsed in half a year, triggering the March 23 election.

"The chances of Netanyahu to form a government, as it seems right now, are quite low," said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

Looming over the negotiations will be Netanyahu's corruption trial, which resumed this week with testimony from the first of a string of witnesses to testify against him.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, front, attends the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, front, attends the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
Israeli lawmakers attend the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
Israeli lawmakers attend the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, center left, and other lawmakers attend the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, center left, and other lawmakers attend the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
With Israel's Knesset, or Parliament, behind him, an activist protester wears a mask representing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as lawmakers are sworn in following the country's fourth election in two years, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
With Israel's Knesset, or Parliament, behind him, an activist protester wears a mask representing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as lawmakers are sworn in following the country's fourth election in two years, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Israeli President Reuvan Rivlin speaks during the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
Israeli President Reuvan Rivlin speaks during the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, speaks with Knesset members during the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, speaks with Knesset members during the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
Newly elected Israeli Knesset members and Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member from the Religious Zionist party, center, attend the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
Newly elected Israeli Knesset members and Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member from the Religious Zionist party, center, attend the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's 24th government, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The ceremony took place shortly after the country's president asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new majority coalition, a difficult task given the deep divisions in the fragmented parliament. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP)
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