Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's latest political maneuvering has left senior members of his own Likud party fearful that he has inadvertently thwarted his own chances of forming a right-wing coalition in the handful of days left to him.
Netanyahu on Tuesday tried to jam through the appointment of Likud ally Ofir Akunis as justice minister, a move that was overruled by an irate Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit as unlawful. The High Court was to decide the matter Wednesday afternoon and has frozen the appointment in the interim.
Israel has had no justice minister since April 1 when Netanyahu refused to extend Blue & White leader Benny Gantz's temporary tenure in the role.
At a stormy cabinet meeting Tuesday, convened to abide by a High Court ruling that a minister must be appointed by the end of the day, Netanyahu flouted his own coalition agreement with the Blue & White party and named Akunis to head the ministry.
Under the terms of the coalition agreement, however, ministerial appointments can only be made with the consensus of Blue & White and Likud. And Gantz did not agree.
The political fallout was swift.
Some Likud officials accused Netanyahu of an unforced error during the cabinet meeting, claiming his actions would foil chances to form a coalition that was right-wing and religious.
"We were very surprised by Netanyahu's attempts," a Likud source said. "But on the other hand, we know how important control of the Justice Ministry is for him."
Critics have accused Netanyahu of trying to install a friendly justice minister who would then move to curtail the prime minister's ongoing trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
One Likud source described Netanyahu's actions during the cabinet meeting as shocking.
"We did not think the prime minister could shock us anymore," he said.
The officials fear that Netanyahu has now lost the momentum he needs to entice both New Hope leader Gideon Saar and Yamina leader Naftali Bennet to join a Likud-led coalition. They said that an alternative coalition that includes center and left-wing parties was now more likely.
Netanyahu has only one week left to form a coalition before losing the mandate, which is then expected to go to Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party that won the second-highest number of seats in the newly elected parliament.
Saar, the former Likudnik being courted by Netanyahu to join a right-wing coalition, lashed out at the bid to insert Akunis, writing on Twitter in Hebrew that Netanyahu's conduct was further proof that he cannot continue to serve as prime minister.
Saar left Likud and set up his own New Hope party after failing to oust Netanyahu as Likud leader last year. He campaigned in the March elections on his refusal to serve under a prime minister who has been indicted for corruption.
But Netanyahu, falling short of the 61 MKs he needs to form a coalition, had tried to woo Saar back by saying he would be prepared to step aside for the first year of his new government's tenure and allow another member of his party to assume the premiership.
Without enlisting Saar and Bennett, who expressed equal criticism of the maneuvering, Netanyahu will find it impossible to form a government and his actions Tuesday may have pushed both away irrevocably.