Israeli Coalition Talks Start 05/05 06:55

Israeli Coalition Talks Start 05/05 06:55


   JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's president on Wednesday signaled he would move 
quickly to task a new candidate with forming a government after Prime Minister 
Benjamin Netanyahu failed to do so ahead of a midnight deadline.

   Netanyahu's political future was thrown into question when he failed to 
assemble a ruling coalition in the four weeks allotted to him. That raised the 
possibility that his 12-year run as prime minister -- the longest in Israeli 
history -- could soon come to an end. It follows more than two years of 
political paralysis.

   "It looks like, perhaps within a few days or a few weeks, we might have a 
functioning coalition that will not include Mr. Netanyahu. This will be a 
groundbreaking change," said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy 
Institute, an independent think tank.

   He acknowledged, however, that "a fifth consecutive election is still, 
unfortunately, a real possibility."

   President Reuven Rivlin, who occupies a mostly ceremonial role, 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.

   Rivlin met with the two main candidates for forming a government -- 
opposition leader Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally -- 
and asked parties to make their positions known before 2 p.m. (1100 GMT).

   Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party, received the backing of four 
smaller parties from across the political spectrum, while Bennett, head of the 
small nationalist and religious Yamina party, recommended himself to form the 
next government.

   Rivlin was expected to make a decision by the end of the day.

   Elections held March 23 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.

   During Wednesday's consultations, the 52-member pro-Netanyahu bloc asked 
Rivlin not to give another candidate a chance to form a government and instead 
send the matter directly to parliament.

   In a statement, Likud claimed there was no viable combination for an 
alternative coalition and that prolonging the negotiating process was a waste 
of time. Moving straight to parliament, it said, "will save another period of 
uncertainty for the state of Israel."

   Despite the Likud's plea, Lapid, who received the backing of 45 lawmakers, 
now seems to be the most likely candidate to get a chance to form a government. 
Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally turned rival, controls just seven seats in 
parliament, but he has emerged as a kingmaker of sorts by carrying the votes 
Lapid would need to secure a parliamentary majority.

   Lapid has said he is ready to share the prime minister's job with Bennett, 
with Bennett serving first in a rotation. But they have not reached any firm 
agreements. The parties opposed to Netanyahu represent a wide range of 
conflicting ideologies, making it unclear whether they will be able to unite.

   "Players from the right wing, from the center, from the left will have to 
build a common agenda," Plesner said. "Their strong driving force would be to 
stay in government to ensure that Netanyahu is out and that the affairs of 
state are properly run."

   Netanyahu has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, with the last 
four elections all seen as a referendum on his rule. He has been desperate to 
remain in office while he stands trial, using his position to lash out at 
prosecutors and seek possible immunity from prosecution.

   Netanyahu 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 favors with a powerful media 
mogul. Netanyahu denies the charges, accusing law enforcement, the judiciary 
and the media of waging a "witch hunt" against him.

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