Vowing transparency and respect for the will of the voters, President Reuven Rivlin began consultations with political party representatives on Monday, to hear their recommendations on who should be tapped to form the next government in the wake of the March 23 elections.
Almost simultaneously, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was appearing in court across town as the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial got underway.
Meeting with representatives of Netanyahu's Likud party, Rivlin alluded to the trial, saying that "there may be a moral component to choosing a prime minister that I do not know whether a president or the Supreme Court should address."
Under Israeli law, a prime minister can serve despite being indicted on criminal charges while other lawmakers are not afforded the same right. Netanyahu has refused to resign, claiming the charges were the result of a "witch hunt" by the media and the judicial establishment.
Speaking for Likud, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana told Rivlin that the party received the votes of more than one million Israelis and that "Netanyahu will have the largest number of recommendations and therefore must be given the mandate to form a government."
Likud party won 30 Knesset seats, the largest number by far, in the elections. Netanyahu himself expects 52 Knesset members to recommend him to the president including the ultra-Orthodox parties and the extreme-right Religious Zionist party, but will still fall short of the 61-MK majority needed to form a coalition.
Minister of Regional Cooperation Ofir Akunis told Rivlin tapping a candidate that has less than 10 Knesset seats is "in my view undemocratic," referring to the possibility that Yamina leader Naftali Bennett may have more legislators recommending him despite only winning seven Knesset seats in last month's elections.
Rivlin asked the Likud lawmakers how they would answer the fact that more people voted against Netanyahu than for him.
Ohana argued that there was no such thing as a vote against a candidate and that each voter cast his ballot for the leader he preferred.
Still, 57 members of Knesset have stated that they would not join a Netanyahu-led coalition.
The prime minister did however later win the support of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who also called on right-wing party leaders Bennett and Gideon Saar of New Hope, another Netanyahu ally turned rival, to back the prime minister. Saar, who quit the Likud to form his own party, has vowed to never sit in another government led by Netanyahu.
Reforging old alliance
After the Likud ministers left, Yesh Atid representatives arrived at the residence to recommend that party leader Yair Lapid be tasked with forming a coalition.
Yesh Atid's former political partners in Blue & White also recommended Lapid, whose party received 17 seats in the election last month. The two parties split acrimoniously after Blue & White leader Benny Gantz announced his surprise decision to form what turned out to be a short-lived government after the March 2020 elections.
A statement released Monday by Blue & White said that Gantz had spoken to Lapid to inform him of his decision.
“As promised, we’re continuing to do everything we can to get an honest government in place, and prevent the presidential mandate from being given to Netanyahu, who is entirely preoccupied with his trial," Gantz wrote Monday morning on Twitter.
Gantz urged other members of what is known as the "bloc for change" to back Lapid as well in order to "prevent Netanyahu from receiving the mandate and... so that we can form a government of healing which the Israeli people so truly need."
Yamina, meanwhile, told Rivlin that they recommend their own party leader as the person best suited to form the next government.
Bennett is seen by some pundits as the most likely person to be tapped by the president in the current divided political scene.
Party MKs Ayelet Shaked and Matan Kahana told the president that Yamina was committed to creating political stability and avoiding a fifth election since April 2019.
"Throughout the election, the right promised its voters that a stable government would be formed and a fifth election avoided," Kahana said.
"Unfortunately, some party leaders are acting as if we are already in a fifth election campaign. We will do everything we can to prevent such a situation as it would be a disaster for Israel, which is already experiencing a deep social rift."
'Transparent and open'
Speaking Monday morning as he prepared to embark on the allotted three days of consultations, Rivlin reiterated his belief that the next government should reflect the will of the people.
"The aim of the process that the law sets out is to bring about the formation of a government that will have the confidence of the new Knesset that has been elected by the people," Rivlin said.
"The main consideration that will guide me is entrusting a Knesset member with the task who has the best chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of the new Knesset," he said.
"This is how all previous Israeli presidents have acted, this is how I acted in previous elections and this is how I will act now," the president said.
"During the day, the elected representatives will come to the President's Residence, the house of the Israeli people, and will make their voices – your voices – heard.
"This round of consultations, just as the previous rounds since I took office, will be transparent and open to the public as a reflection of our commitment to be as visible as possible to Israeli citizens," he said.
First published: 10:41 , 04.05.21