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Israel’s political future in limbo as Netanyahu struggles to form coalition

Israel’s political future in limbo as Netanyahu struggles to form coalition
Israel could be heading into another early election as Benjamin Netanyahu has so far failed to form an uneasy right-wing coalition in his last-ditch attempt, just days before the deadline on Wednesday.

Even though Netanyahu managed to overcome tough competition from centrists to win his historic fifth term in office in April, it seems that his hardships are far from over. Even though right-wing parties led the way at the elections with 66-55 seats – and nearly all of them said they would recommend Netanyahu to President Reuven Rivlin to form the next coalition government – he still needs to unite them to cement his role as prime minister for a fifth time.

To do that, Netanyahu needs the support of five right-wing forces, ranging from ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism groups to former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party – and they have so far proven to be far less likely allies than they seemed to be.

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Lieberman’s nationalist party and the ultra-Orthodox groupings particularly butted heads over the major sticking point – a contentious conscription draft law, which would require Orthodox Jewish seminary students to serve in the Armed Forces – something they have always resisted. In an attempt to strike a deal, Netanyahu suggested taking the recruitment targets out of the law, leaving the issue for the government to decide.

While the idea apparently struck a chord with the ultra-Orthodox parties, which approved Netanyahu’s compromise, it still failed to persuade Lieberman, who continues to adamantly champion mandatory conscription for everyone.

On Saturday, the former defense minister said he would only join the coalition if his demands on conscription law were met. He also took a jab at Netanyahu by saying that being “right-wing isn't about a personality cult, it's about values,” apparently hinting at the prime minister’s long rule.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party then accused Lieberman of seeking to “obstruct the establishment of a government.” Some members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party appeared to share that opinion as well, according to the Israeli media. In the face of criticism from its would-be allies, Lieberman said that his party has repeatedly said it “loud and clear” that they would not “recommend anyone else for prime minister” but Netanyahu.

On Sunday, Netanyahu announced he would make a “last-ditch effort to form a right-wing government and prevent unnecessary elections,” as he invited all his potential coalition partners for another round of talks. Later, Likud confirmed that it managed to reach a compromise with the ultra-Orthodox groups. Lieberman reportedly refused to attend the meeting and was the only right-wing party leader to reject Netanyahu’s conscription bill compromise.

With only three days left before the 42-day deadline mandated by law to announce a new government expires, the situation is becoming increasingly unclear – and seemingly unstable. Haaretz reported on Sunday that Netanyahu suspected Lieberman of attempts to provoke new elections.

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"I don't think we need to drag the country through an additional election, but it seems that there is someone who wants that," he said at the start of a cabinet meeting, as cited by the paper. The media outlet also reported that Likud could present a bill to dissolve the parliament and announce another early vote on Wednesday if no agreement is reached.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Arutz Sheva broadcaster said that Likud has called on all its MPs to vote on the dissolution of parliament as early as Monday afternoon, citing a message allegedly sent to the faction members.

This uncertainty might eventually play into the hands of Netnayahu’s main election rival – the leader of the centrist Blue and White party, former military chief Benny Gantz, who could be entrusted with forming a coalition if the right-wing one fails. However, Gantz would also need support from at least some of Netanyahu’s allies, which could yet emerge as an even more difficult task for the centrist leader, and eventually lead Israel to another snap election.

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