President Reuven Rivlin Wednesday announced that he has decided to task Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid with forming Israel's next government.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's deadline for forming a government expired at midnight, with the country's longest-serving prime minister having failed again to break more than two years of political deadlock.
"It is clear that Knesset member Yair Lapid has a chance to form a government that will earn the confidence of the Knesset, even if the difficulties are many," Rivlin said during his announcement, which was made following consultations with Israel's political parties.
During those talks, Lapid received 56 recommendations to be the next candidate to receive the mandate, including from Gideon Saar's New Hope party and five out of six MKs from the predominantly Arab Joint List.
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett received seven nominations, with the 52-MK right-wing bloc headed by Netanyahu asking for the mandate to be returned to Knesset.
Mansour Abbas' Ra'am party made no recommendation to Rivlin, though it said in a statement after the decision that it would cooperate "positively" with whichever party receives the mandate.
"My fellow Israelis," Rivlin continued, "we have been caught in a maze – if not a political crisis – for some time now. But we must not allow these difficulties to undermine our faith that we are on the right path, and that we can continue to build the sovereignty of the Israeli people here. Whatever it takes, we will know how to come out of this stronger, unified, on the highway guided by Israeli society."
"Once I was young and now I am old, but I have never seen any crisis that has weakened the spirit of this wonderful people.
In a statement, Lapid said he would move quickly to form a broad-based unity government "as soon as possible, so we can get to work for the people of Israel."
"We need a government that will reflect the fact that we don't hate one another," he said. "A government in which left, right and center will work together to tackle the economic and security challenges we face. A government that will show that our differences are a source of strength, not weakness."
Lapid, whose late father was a Cabinet minister and who himself is a veteran journalist and politician, now has four weeks to reach a deal with potential partners.
The 57-year-old entered Knesset in 2013 after a successful career as a newspaper columnist, TV anchor and author. His new Yesh Atid party ran a successful rookie campaign, landing Lapid the powerful post of finance minister.
But he and Netanyahu did not get along, and the coalition quickly crumbled. Yesh Atid has been in the opposition since 2015 elections. The party is popular with secular, middle-class voters and has been critical of Netanyahus close ties with ultra-Orthodox parties and said the prime minister should step down while on trial for corruption charges.
The Yesh Atid leader has said he is ready to share the prime minister's job with Bennett, with Bennett serving first in a rotation. But they have not reached any firm agreements. The parties opposed to Netanyahu represent a wide range of conflicting ideologies, making it unclear whether they will be able to unite.
Ahead of Rivlin's announcement, Bennett said that his party attempted to reach an agreement with Netanyahu on forming a government, but the premier instead "slammed the door on us."
"There are two options - another election or to form a broad emergency government that will get the wheel out of the mud," he added.
Netanyahu has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, with the last four elections all seen as a referendum on his rule. He has been desperate to remain in office while he stands trial, using his position to lash out at prosecutors and seek possible immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and bribery in a series of scandals. The trial has moved into the witness phase, with embarrassing testimony accusing him of trading favors with a powerful media mogul. Netanyahu denies the charges, accusing law enforcement, the judiciary and the media of waging a "witch hunt" against him.
Failure to break the deadlock would lead to a new election, adding to political turmoil while Israel faces challenges from Iran's nuclear program and pursues economic recovery after a swift rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.
First published: 18:41, 05.05.21