Israeli president picks Netanyahu to try and form government

TEL AVIV, Israel – Israel’s President has appointed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as party leader in an attempt to cobble together a government majority.

Reuven Rivlin’s announcement in Jerusalem on Tuesday advanced the twin dramas of the country’s future and Netanyahu’s fate as his corruption process resumed across the city.

The indictment of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister represented an extraordinary decision for the country’s president as to whether “morality” should be a factor in who should run the government.

The March 23 election was about whether Netanyahu would be able to continue serving. His Likud party won the most seats, but neither party won a government majority of 61 seats in the Knesset. That gave Rivlin the task of deciding who had the best chance of cobbling together a coalition.

Netanyahu denies all charges, saying prosecutors are trying to undermine voters’ intentions and oust him from office.

The decision was made when Netanyahu’s trial reopened in a day that could shed light on who, if anything, can lead the fragmented government after its fourth election in two years.

The March 23 vote was about whether Israel’s longest-serving prime minister would be able to remain in office. There was no governing majority in the 120-seat Knesset, allowing Rivlin to choose a party leader who was most likely to form a coalition. Parliament was due to be sworn in later on Tuesday.

Netanyahu was not expected to appear in court on Tuesday, but his increasingly tense future has been in both areas.

In politics, his Likud party won the most seats in the elections but missed the majority.

In court, where he faced fraud, breach of trust and bribery on three separate occasions, the prospects were not flattering. A key witness on Monday cast Netanyahu as a picture-obsessed leader who forced a prominent news site to aid his family and smear his opponents.

Netanyahu denies all charges and, in a national televised speech, accused prosecutors of pursuing him in an attempt to evict him.

“This is what an attempted coup looks like,” he said.

While a decision could be months or even years away, the trial is expected to take place up to three days a week, an embarrassing and time-consuming distraction that is sure to compound calls for Netanyahu to step down.

A few miles away, Rivlin consulted the various parties elected to parliament before choosing a candidate to form a new government. The talks risked plunging the country into an unprecedented fifth straight election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters at the headquarters of his Likud party in Jerusalem after the initial results of the Exit poll for the Israeli parliamentary elections in March.Ariel Schalit / AP

Israeli media reported that Rivlin was considering another factor alluding to Netanyahu’s legal troubles. Speaking at a meeting with the Likud Party, Rivlin said, “There can be a moral component to the choice of prime minister.” However, he did not know whether that factor was his or the Supreme Court.

With both Netanyahu and his main rival Yair Lapid lacking the support of the majority of lawmakers, Rivlin faces the difficult task of choosing the leader who, with 61 votes, is most likely to form a coalition government.

Late on Wednesday, Lapid urged the country’s anti-Netanyahu factions – a patchwork of parties with wide ideological differences – to put their differences aside and form a unity government. He said he even offered a power-sharing rotation to Naftali Bennett, leader of a small right-wing party, with Bennett serving as prime minister first.

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“Anyone who has seen Netanyahu’s ruthless performance today knows that he cannot continue his job,” Lapid said on Tuesday.

Netanyahu spent part of Monday in court, where the evidence phase of his trial took place. The session focused on the worst case against Netanyahu, accusing him of promoting regulations that earned telecommunications company Bezeq hundreds of millions of dollars in profits in exchange for positive coverage on the company’s popular news site, Walla.

Ilan Yeshua, Walla’s former editor-in-chief, described a system in which Bezeq’s owners, Shaul and Iris Elovitch, repeatedly pressured him to publicize cheap things about Netanyahu and tarnish the prime minister’s rivals.

The explanation the couple gave him? “That’s what the prime minister wanted,” he said.

In his televised statement, Netanyahu accused prosecutors of conducting a “witch hunt” against him.

The intertwined political question was floating. Rivlin has until midnight Wednesday to elect a prime minister-designate, who has up to six weeks to form a coalition. Or, if he thinks there is no clear choice, he could send the matter directly to the Knesset and order lawmakers to elect a member as prime minister or force another election.

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