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Netanyahu Opponent, Yair Lapid, Given 4 Weeks To Form New Government In Israel

JERUSALEM — Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday tapped centrist opposition figure Yair Lapid to try to form a new government, sparking potentially weeks of political negotiations that could break Israel's cycle of inconclusive elections and lead to the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's record-breaking uninterrupted 12-year tenure.

But there are "many difficulties" to forming a new government, Rivlin acknowledged, leaving open the possibility of an unprecedented fifth election in the span of two years.

Netanyahu spent a month trying to form a right-wing governing coalition following March elections, but it required the support of an Arab Islamist party, which one of his ultranationalist Jewish political partners refused to accept.

After Netanyahu failed to assemble a parliamentary majority by a midnight deadline late Tuesday, nearly half the parliament gave its support to Lapid, a 57-year-old former journalist and finance minister who has served in the opposition for the last six years.

Lapid said he would seek to form a unity government of ideologically diverse parties, ending "two years of political paralysis" in which Netanyahu struggled to win a new term after four inconclusive elections.

"A unity government isn't a compromise or a last resort. It's a goal, it's what we need," Lapid said in a statement.

He is offering to share power with the right-wing Naftali Bennett, a religious Jew and former defense minister, even letting him serve as prime minister first in a rotation.

Such a government would require Jewish parties from the left, right and center to cooperate and to accept the support of an Arab party as well. One of Bennett's party members has rejected the notion of cooperating with the left wing, and Bennett, a former entrepreneur, must weigh the risks of upsetting his voters with such a broad coalition.

"It now depends if Bennett is serious about change," said veteran political consultant Ayelet Frisch. "Almost all the details [of the coalition] have been finalized. The ministries have already been divided between the parties."

Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said the parties' common desire to unseat Netanyahu could outweigh differences of ideology. He suggested such a government would not weigh in on sensitive questions such as the power of Israel's Supreme Court or the future of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, but rather would focus on the post-pandemic economy.

"I think we are on the way there," Plesner said.

Netanyahu tried to delegitimize that option. "The truth is simple. This will be a dangerous left-wing government, a lethal combination between a lack of a path, a lack of capability and lack of responsibility," he said in a videotaped statement.

If Lapid does not succeed in forming a government within a month, Israel's parliament, the 120-member Knesset, will have three weeks to suggest a prime ministerial candidate. If no candidate wins the support of the majority of the parliament, Israel would hold yet another election in several months.

Sami Sockol in Jerusalem contributed reporting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.