JERUSALEM — Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday tapped centrist opposition figure Yair Lapid to try to form a new government, sparking potentially weeks of political negotiations that could break Israel's cycle of inconclusive elections and lead to the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's record-breaking uninterrupted 12-year tenure.
But there are "many difficulties" to forming a new government, Rivlin acknowledged, leaving open the possibility of an unprecedented fifth election in the span of two years.
Netanyahu spent a month trying to form a right-wing governing coalition following March elections, but it required the support of an Arab Islamist party, which one of his ultranationalist Jewish political partners refused to accept.
After Netanyahu failed to assemble a parliamentary majority by a midnight deadline late Tuesday, nearly half the parliament gave its support to Lapid, a 57-year-old former journalist and finance minister who has served in the opposition for the last six years.
Lapid said he would seek to form a unity government of ideologically diverse parties, ending "two years of political paralysis" in which Netanyahu struggled to win a new term after four inconclusive elections.
"A unity government isn't a compromise or a last resort. It's a goal, it's what we need," Lapid said in a statement.
He is offering to share power with the right-wing Naftali Bennett, a religious Jew and former defense minister, even letting him serve as prime minister first in a rotation.
Such a government would require Jewish parties from the left, right and center to cooperate and to accept the support of an Arab party as well. One of Bennett's party members has rejected the notion of cooperating with the left wing, and Bennett, a former entrepreneur, must weigh the risks of upsetting his voters with such a broad coalition.
"It now depends if Bennett is serious about change," said veteran political consultant Ayelet Frisch. "Almost all the details [of the coalition] have been finalized. The ministries have already been divided between the parties."
Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said the parties' common desire to unseat Netanyahu could outweigh differences of ideology. He suggested such a government would not weigh in on sensitive questions such as the power of Israel's Supreme Court or the future of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, but rather would focus on the post-pandemic economy.
"I think we are on the way there," Plesner said.
Netanyahu tried to delegitimize that option. "The truth is simple. This will be a dangerous left-wing government, a lethal combination between a lack of a path, a lack of capability and lack of responsibility," he said in a videotaped statement.
If Lapid does not succeed in forming a government within a month, Israel's parliament, the 120-member Knesset, will have three weeks to suggest a prime ministerial candidate. If no candidate wins the support of the majority of the parliament, Israel would hold yet another election in several months.
Sami Sockol in Jerusalem contributed reporting.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's too soon to say that Benjamin Netanyahu's long run as prime minister of Israel is over, but someone not named Netanyahu does have a chance to succeed him - a former-news-anchor-turned-politician named Yair Lapid. He's a centrist party leader, and Israel's president has designated him to try to form a new government. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem. Daniel, welcome.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: How did Israel get into this situation that they're in at the moment?
ESTRIN: Well, it all comes down to one man, and that's Benjamin Netanyahu. He is a polarizing leader. He's now on trial for corruption, as you know. And for the last two years, he's not been able to win an election outright, and neither have his rivals. But he has not quit. He's run for reelection again and again in four different elections, all the while staying in office, fighting his corruption trial from a position of power.
And now what's happened is that here we are again. Netanyahu could not form a government after the last elections in March, so the president has asked Yair Lapid to give it a try.
INSKEEP: Why would he even have a chance to succeed?
ESTRIN: He's a familiar face in Israel from his days in television, and he's been in politics for quite some time. What he brings to the table is that he's a centrist. So Yair Lapid thinks he has the ability to bring together right-wing parties and left-wing parties, maybe even an Arab party, all for the common goal of ending Netanyahu's tenure. And he is determined to make this work, so much so that he's even offering to let Naftali Bennett, who is a hard-right politician, be prime minister first, and then they would rotate.
INSKEEP: Wow. Well, that's interesting. So the guy who's been told to form the government might form a government that he doesn't even lead. Where does that say about where Israel is right now?
ESTRIN: That's right. He wouldn't lead it automatically at first. He'd let Naftali Bennett lead it first, and then it would be a rotation. I mean, what this says about Israel right now - the right is clearly dominant, Steve. I mean, even if they disagree on whether to support Netanyahu, right-wing parties won an overwhelming majority of the parliament in all of these recent elections. So no matter what, any government would need to include right-wing parties that are very ideologically driven - they oppose the creation of a Palestinian state- who want to keep Israeli settlers in the West Bank forever.
Israel is not about to take a moderate or centrist turn here. I mean, even if these - this diverse group of left and right and center and even Arab parties somehow manage to come together to form a government, they'd agree on next to nothing. They would not be able to make decisions on big issues like the occupation of the West Bank. They would not be reversing course on Israel's settlement growth. They would have kicked Netanyahu from office if they succeed. So that just shows you where the country is now - the whole political system just focused on one man, Netanyahu.
INSKEEP: You're talking about the problems that would result if Lapid succeeds. What if he fails to form a government?
ESTRIN: If he fails, parliament gets to nominate another candidate. And if that does not succeed, Israel would hold an unprecedented fifth election, and Netanyahu would get to remain in office and buy himself more time.
INSKEEP: Daniel, glad you're there to explain it to us.
ESTRIN: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.