Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime political Harry Houdini, has been handed the chance to escape the political straitjacket he was put in by last week’s inconclusive election, asked to create a coalition where none appears to exists.
If he succeeds, he will become Israel’s first five-time prime minister, allowing him to deliver on incendiary pledges that would thwart a Palestinian state, fortify himself with immunity against prosecution, and continue dragging Israel further to the right.
But if he fails, it could be the last act of Mr Netanyahu’s three-decade political career, as a possible indictment on corruption charges looms.
He is well aware of the scale of the challenge he faces to secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. On Wednesday, having received a mandate from President Reuven Rivlin to form a governing coalition after a week of failed negotiations between the front-runners, the man many Israelis call “King Bibi” even showed a hint of humility.
“I don’t have a better chance of forming a government, but let’s say that my inability is a little smaller than Gantz’s,” he said in a televised address. He was referring to Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White alliance that took 33 seats in the general election compared with 32 for Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party.
But to get a majority, Mr Netanyahu must either woo defectors from rivals to add to his rightwing coalition, or convince ally-turned-foe Avigdor Lieberman to join him. Mr Lieberman, his former defence minister who won nine seats, has said he would not do so unless the Likud leader ditched long-term ultraorthodox allies. That would leave Mr Netanyahu short again.
Instead, Mr Lieberman has floated the idea of a unity government with a rotating prime ministership, an idea embraced in theory by Mr Netanyahu, Mr Gantz and Mr Rivlin. But in which order do they each become prime minister?
Mr Netanyahu has made it clear he wants to be first, telling Likud members in private that it is the only way to get an immunity clause through parliament to shield not just him, but every parliamentarian, from prosecution. Mr Gantz, predictably, has scoffed at the suggestion.
“The problem is that there is a lot of distrust now between Gantz and Netanyahu,” said Tal Schneider, chief diplomatic correspondent for the Globes newspaper. “The biggest distrust is if Netanyahu is going to do the first two years [as prime minister], then he may use some tricks to dissolve parliament.”
Mr Lieberman’s plans is for his secular rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu party to form a unity government with both Likud, which includes religious rightwingers, and Blue and White, which represents middle-class voters and security hawks. This would be one of the strongest rightwing coalition in Israeli history.
Each are staunchly anti-Palestinian, agitated by Iran’s expansion in the Middle East, and fond of military action. Mr Gantz launched his election campaign late last year with a video boasting of bombing the Gaza Strip “into the stone age”, while Mr Lieberman resigned from Mr Netanyahu’s government in November over the prime minister’s decision to agree a truce with the militant group Hamas.
Mr Lieberman has said he does not care who goes first, as long as the government keeps Israeli-Arabs and ultraorthodox Jews from power. “For all I care, they could flip a coin,” he said on Facebook recently.
Mr Gantz, a retired military leader who has never held political office, has said he would not consider a unity government unless Mr Netanyahu stepped aside, considering the looming indictment. The Blue and White leader will now sit back and hope his rival fails, so that he can either receive the mandate to form a coalition or compete in fresh elections. Mr Netanyahu has 28 days to made the mathematics work.
Blue and White appeared unscathed by the second national election this year, and if a third election — unprecedented in Israeli history — is called, there is a chance Mr Netanyahu will be hobbled by a corruption indictment. He has denied all wrongdoing, but faces a hearing with the attorney-general on October 2.
Mr Gantz on Wednesday repeated his campaign pledge not to sit in a government with a prime minister under indictment, a reminder that Mr Netanyahu’s hopes of coaxing him into a partnership remain slim.
Yet Mr Gantz would face his own challenge to secure a majority. An indication of his thinking emerged when the leader of the Joint List of Arab Parties said Mr Gantz had asked him to withhold recommendations from three of his 13 MPs to support the Blue and White leader.
Mr Rivlin collects recommendations before deciding who should form a government. The missing three Arab recommendations ensured Mr Netanyahu had one more, and would therefore be handed the first chance of put together a coalition.
“They do not believe Netanyahu will succeed in forming a government,” Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, told local television of Mr Gantz’s strategy. “The other parties are not going to want a third election . . . then Gantz will succeed in forming a government.”
But several Likud members said Mr Gantz had underestimated Mr Netanyahu. They cited his success in wooing defectors from rivals in the past, including leftwing leader Ehud Barak in 2011, and ongoing approaches to the Labor alliance, which has six seats. Labor has so far declined the offers, “but circumstances change”, said one Likud committee member.
“Who wants a third election? Nobody,” said the Likud member. “People have to set aside their differences and understand what is good for the country.”