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Politics

Netanyahu’s Opponents Race Deadline on Unity Government

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opponents raced the clock to finalize a coalition government that would end his 12-year rule ahead of a deadline at midnight Wednesday.

Centrist Yair Lapid and ultranationalist Naftali Bennett have joined forces and agreed to rotate the premiership between them, with Bennett going first. But they were still working to cobble together a ruling coalition that would include parties from across the political spectrum.

Israeli media reported there were some lingering disagreements over lower-level political appointments.

According to the reports, Ayelet Shaked, Bennett's deputy, was demanding a place on a committee that chooses the nation's judges.

But Shaked, a prominent voice in Israel's hard-line right wing, has expressed misgivings about joining forces with the dovish members of the emerging coalition. 

Both Shaked and Bennett have come under heavy pressure from Netanyahu and the country's right wing base not to join his opponents. The Knesset, or parliament, has assigned additional security guards to both in recent days because of death threats and online incitement.

By early Wednesday evening, just six hours before the deadline at midnight (2100 GMT; 5 p.m. EDT), there was still no sign of progress.

Lapid must inform Israel's largely ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin, by midnight that he has formed a majority coalition of at least 61 seats in the Knesset. The assembly would then have a week to hold a vote of confidence.

If Lapid misses the deadline, the country will almost certainly have a fifth election in just over two years, and Netanyahu would have yet another chance to hold onto his position as he stands trial for corruption.

Netanyahu's Likud won the most seats in the March 23 election, but he was unable to form a majority with his traditional religious and nationalist allies.

Crucially, a far-right party allied with Netanyahu refused to join forces with a small Arab party that emerged as one of the kingmakers in the race.

Netanyahu had hoped to extend his long rule and battle the corruption charges from the prime minister's office. He has emerged as a deeply polarizing force in recent years, leaving Israel in a prolonged state of political limbo through a series of inconclusive elections.

An emergency government formed last year between Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz to battle the coronavirus pandemic quickly became mired in political bickering and collapsed in December. That government remains in place as caretaker.

Amid the political deadlock, parliament on Wednesday elected Isaac Herzog, a veteran politician and the scion of a prominent Israeli family, as the country's next president.

The presidency is a largely ceremonial role that is meant to serve as the nation's moral compass and promote unity.

"I intend to be the president of everyone," Herzog, whose late father held the same position, said after the votes were tallied. "We must defend Israel's international status and its good reputation in the family of nations, fight antisemitism and hatred of Israel, and preserve the pillars of our democracy. "

Herzog, 60, is a former head of Israel's Labor Party and opposition leader who unsuccessfully ran against Netanyahu in the 2015 parliamentary elections. 

He comes from a prominent Zionist family. His father, Chaim Herzog, was Israel's ambassador to the United Nations before being elected president. His uncle, Abba Eban, was Israel's first foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations and United States. His grandfather was the country's first chief rabbi.

He defeated challenger Miriam Peretz by a margin of 87-26. Peretz, 67, is a prominent educator and lecturer who is well known because she lost two sons in battle during their military service. In 2018 she was awarded the Israel Prize, the country's top award, for lifetime achievement.

Herzog is set to take office next month and could play a role in Israeli politics down the road.

The president's responsibilities include choosing the party leader in parliament he believes has the best chance of forming a coalition after each election. If the country is forced into another vote, Herzog could help determine who becomes prime minister.

The president also has the authority to grant pardons — making Herzog a potentially key player if Netanyahu, who is on trial for multiple corruption charges, is eventually convicted.

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