Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the firstcrack at forming Israel's next government, but the job could ultimately fall to a much less well-known figure: Naftali Bennett.
Why it matters: Bennett's right-wing Yamina party won just seven seats in the March 23 elections, but an unprecedented set of political circumstances has created an opening for the former defense minister and tech entrepreneur to replace Netanyahu, with the support of the center-left.
The state of play: For the fourth consecutive election, Netanyahu's Likud was the largest party, but his right-wing bloc failed to win a majority. He's now trying to cobble together a coalition while on trial for corruption.
- Netanyahu can’t reach out to the other side, because almost everyone outside the right-wing bloc has refused to join his government due to the corruption charges.
- But Netanyahu’s center-left opponents, led by opposition leader Yair Lapid, are also short of a majority.
- That leaves two wildcards: Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally now on the fringes of the right-wing camp, and an unaligned Islamist party called Ra’am.
Driving the news: Shortly before Netnayahu was awarded the mandate, Lapid made an audacious proposal: despite having won more than twice as many seats as Bennett, he was willing to serve under him if it meant getting rid of Netanyahu.
- Lapid proposed a power-sharing deal that would make Bennett prime minister for two years, at which point Lapid would rotate in for an additional two years.
- Lapid contended that all of the anti-Netanyahu parties should back Bennett to lead a government that would steer clear of controversial issues, make all decisions by consensus, and focus on the post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
Bennett didn’t rule out that option, but the negotiations didn’t materialize quickly enough to present any firm understandings to President Reuven Rivlin before he awarded Netanyahu the mandate.
- Still, Bennett hinted on Tuesday that he would keep negotiating with Lapid behind-the-scenes.
- Bennett said he would not sacrifice his positions in order to form a left-wing government, but stressed the need to form a government that will “reflect a wide range of views and represent the Israeli consensus."
The other side: Netanyahu has 28 days to try and form a coalition. He starts with a right-wing bloc of 52 seats, and needs to reach 61 for a majority.
- To get there, he'd have to bring his former protégé Bennett back into the tent, and add Ra’am's four seats.
- But that coalition would require the radical right-wing "Religious Zionism" party, which includes Jewish supremacists, to sit in the same coalition with Ra'am, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
- Netanyahu is a master of the art of political survival, but he has a difficult task ahead of him.
What's next: If he fails, the most likely alternatives are a Bennett-Lapid government that would eject Netanyahu from power, or a fifth consecutive election in September.