Netanyahu misses deadline, political future in question

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FILE - In this Wednesday, April 14, 2021 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Memorial Day ceremony at the military cemetery at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem. Netanyahu faces a midnight deadline on Tuesday, May 4, to put together a new coalition government. If he fails, he faces the possibility of leading his Likud party into the opposition for the first time in 12 years. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool, File)

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday failed to meet a midnight deadline to put together a new governing coalition, raising the possibility that his Likud party could be pushed into the opposition for the first time in 12 years.

The deadline closed a four-week window granted to Netanyahu by Israel's figurehead president. The matter now bounces back to President Reuven Rivlin, who announced just after midnight that he would contact on Wednesday the 13 parties with seats in parliament to discuss “the continuation of the process of forming a government.”

Rivlin is expected in the coming days to give one of Netanyahu’s opponents a chance to form an alternative coalition government. He also could ask the parliament to select one of its own members as prime minister. If all else fails, the country would be forced into another election this fall — the fifth in just over two years.

The turmoil does not mean that Netanyahu will immediately be forced out as prime minister. But he now faces a serious threat to his lengthy rule just as his corruption trial is kicking into high gear. His opponents, despite deep ideological differences, already have been holding informal talks in recent weeks in hopes of forging a power-sharing agreement.

Netanyahu had 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 unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party, Netanyahu was unable to close a deal.

Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first chance to form a coalition after 52 members of parliament endorsed him as prime minister last month. That was short of a majority, but the highest number for any party leader.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who received the backing of 45 lawmakers, now seems to be the most likely candidate to get a chance to form a government.

Naftali Bennett, head of the small religious, nationalist Yamina party, is also a possibility. Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally turned rival, controls just seven seats in parliament, but he has emerged as a kingmaker of sorts and appears to carry the votes that Lapid would need to secure a parliamentary majority.