JERUSALEM – For the past 12 years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics, vanquishing a stream of challengers as he maintained his tight grip on power.
But after a bruising two-year cycle of political deadlock, Netanyahu is facing the toughest challenge of his record-setting rule and could soon find himself pushed into the opposition.
Israel’s president said on Wednesday that he has given opposition leader Yair Lapid the task of trying to form a new coalition government. President Reuven Rivlin made the announcement after Netanyahu failed to meet a midnight deadline for forming a government himself the previous day.
Lapid, who was once Netanyahu's governing partner but has morphed into a formidable nemesis, now has 28 days to cobble together a majority coalition in parliament with a range of parties that have little in common.
While he faces a difficult task — and Netanyahu is expected to do everything possible to undermine him — Lapid expressed optimism he could make history and end the rule of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Netanyahu has held the post for a total of 15 years, though his standing has been weakened in recent years after being charged in a series of corruption scandals.
Lapid, 57, vowed to form a broad, unity government as soon as possible to end the years of deadlock and heal a divided nation.
“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, entered parliament 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 the 2015 elections. The centrist party is popular with secular, middle-class voters, has been critical of Netanyahu’s close ties with ultra-Orthodox parties and has led calls for the prime minister to step down while on trial.
Israel’s president, whose duties are mostly ceremonial, is responsible after each election for choosing the party leader he believes has the best chance of cobbling together a majority coalition in parliament.
Rivlin last month gave Netanyahu, whose Likud is the largest individual party, the first chance. But Netanyahu was unable to secure the support of the required 61-seat majority in parliament despite repeated meetings with his rivals and unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party.
In consultations with Rivlin on Wednesday, parties holding a total of 56 seats recommended giving Lapid an opportunity. While still short of a majority, Lapid appears to have a reasonable chance of working out a deal. That will require agreements among seven small and midsize parties, and possibly the outside support of an Arab party. An Arab party has never before been a member of an Israeli coalition.
Any agreement will need the support of Yamina, a nationalist party popular with religious voters and West Bank settlers. Lapid has already offered Yamina’s leader, Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu aide turned rival, a rotation agreement splitting the job of prime minister. Under the proposal, Bennett would get the post first.
In a televised address, Bennett accused Netanyahu of “slamming the door” in his face. He vowed to seek an “emergency” unity government that would be “open to all parties.”
“I can’t promise we will succeed in forming such a government,” he said. “I do promise we will try.”
Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Israel’s Hebrew University, said it looked like Lapid and Bennett might be able to work out a deal. “What happened today is a huge victory to the anti-Bibi camp,” she said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
She said the prospect of having to give up his official residence in Jerusalem would be a “painful process” for Netanyahu, and he will do everything possible to trip up his opponents.
“The main (goal) of Netanyahu over the next few days is to dismantle this emergency coalition government,” she said.
In a brief televised statement, Netanyahu lashed out at Bennett, accusing him of abandoning the religious, nationalist right wing and being blinded by ambition.
“This will be a dangerous left-wing government, with a fatal combination of lack of direction, lack of ability and lack of responsibility,” Netanyahu said.
In a small setback to Netanyahu’s opponents, Amichai Chikli, a member of Bennett’s party, said he would not join an alternate coalition. The announcement did not pose an immediate danger but could become a bigger problem if others in Bennett's hard-line party follow suit.
Over the years, Netanyahu has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, alienating a long list of former allies during his lengthy tenure. Three parties were led by former top aides who fell out with him.
The past four elections were all seen as referendums on Netanyahu's polarizing rule and fitness for office as his legal troubles deepened. All of them ended in deadlock, with neither Netanyahu nor his opponents able to muster a majority.
He has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of exchanging favors with rich and powerful associates.
Netanyahu, who denies all the charges, has been desperate to remain in office for the duration of the trial. He has used his position to lash out at prosecutors, police and journalists and explored the possibility of seeking immunity from prosecution.
Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist at the Haaretz daily and author of a Netanyahu biography, said it was far too early to write off the prime minister. Netanyahu will fight “every step of the way” to block the new coalition from forming, he said.
“Every potential member of this potential coalition is going to come under some kind of pressure,” Pfeffer said. Likud activists, for instance, already have staged intimidating demonstrations outside homes of their rivals.
And even if Lapid prevails, he added that Netanyahu would likely remain at the helm of Likud as opposition leader. The party has never before ousted a leader, and Netanyahu remains popular among its rank and file.
Conceding defeat is not part of Netanyahu’s DNA, Pfeffer said. “He will be waiting for this government to trip up and to get back into office.”
Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed reporting.