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Israel's Netanyahu faces deadline to form coalition

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Josef Federman, Associated Press Reporter

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a midnight deadline to put together a new coalition government – or be looking at the possibility of leading his Likud party into opposition for the first time in 12 years.

Mr Netanyahu has struggled to secure a parliamentary majority since March 23 – when elections ended in deadlock for the fourth consecutive time in the past two years.

Despite repeated meetings with many of his rivals and an unprecedented approach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party, Mr Netanyahu has not been able to close a deal during a four-week window.

That window was due to expire at midnight, at which point the matter returns to President Reuven Rivlin in the absence of an agreement.

A failure to reach a deal would not immediately push Mr Netanyahu out of office.

Mr Rivlin could give him an additional two weeks to form a coalition. He could give one of Mr Netanyahu’s opponents an opportunity to form a government, or in a final move of desperation, send the matter straight to parliament.

That would give politicians a chance to choose one of their own as a prime minister. If all options fail, the country would face another election this autumn, meaning months of continued political paralysis.

In the March 23 election, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest single party, with 30 seats in the 120-member parliament. But to form a government, he needs to have the support of a 61-seat majority.

That task has been complicated in large part by members of his own religious and nationalist base.

The New Hope party, led by a former Netanyahu aide, refuses to serve under the prime minister because of deep personal differences.

Religious Zionism, a far-right party that espouses an openly racist platform, supports Mr Netanyahu but has ruled out serving in a government with the Arab partners he has courted. Yamina, another right-wing party led by a former Netanyahu aide, has refused to commit to either him or his opponents.

On Monday, Mr Netanyahu said he had offered the head of Yamina, Naftali Bennett, the chance to share the job of prime minister in a rotation, with Mr Bennett holding the post for the first year.

Mr Bennett responded: “I never asked Netanyahu to be prime minister. I asked to form a government. Unfortunately, he does not have that.”

Looming over Mr Netanyahu has been his ongoing corruption trial. He 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 favours with a powerful media mogul. Mr Netanyahu denies the charges.

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