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Israeli president officially tasks Netanyahu with forming next government

‘I have not lost sight of the fact that there is a legal proceeding against Netanyahu, and I do not take it lightly at all,’ Israeli President Isaac Herzog said during the ceremony

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

President Isaac Herzog formally tasked opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday with forming Israel’s next government. The move came after the president completed Friday consultations with the leaders of all parties that will be in the next session of the Knesset. Parties representing 64 of the 120 lawmakers of the next Knesset told Herzog they supported Netanyahu.

In a speech he gave during the ceremony, Herzog said: “Of course, I have not lost sight of the fact that there is a legal proceeding against MK Netanyahu in the Jerusalem District Court, and I do not take it lightly at all.”

In his speech, Netanyahu dismissed public fears over the future of Israel’s democracy following his election, saying such concerns were also raised during Menachem Begin’s time and during his own past tenure. “It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true today,” he said.

Yesh Atid party who will lead the opposition in the next Knesset said in response that “it’s a dark day for Israeli democracy, in which the incoming prime minister can be blackmailed by his [coalition] partners, whose only joint purpose is to rescue him from his trial and to take Israel back in time.”

As expected, Prime Minister Yair Lapid was recommended for the position by only 28 MKs: those of his own Yesh Atid party and the Labor Party.

Herzog invited Netanyahu to the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem at noon Sunday to present him with the mandate. The last time Netanyahu received the mandate to form a government, then-President Reuven Rivlin declined to meet him at the official residence, and sent him the document without a presentation ceremony.

Netanyahu’s Likud party wants the new cabinet to be sworn in soon after the new members of Knesset take the oath of office, on Tuesday, though this is considered unlikely. For the new government to be sworn in Wednesday, as Netanyahu would like, it is believed that he would have to reach agreements with all of his coalition partners and to announce the agreements by Tuesday at the latest.

The government swearing-in ceremony has several stages. After Netanyahu announces that he has been able to form a governing coalition, Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy (Yesh Atid) has a week to convene the Knesset to announce this and swear in the new cabinet, and it is believed that Levy will convene the Knesset before the deadline. At that time, the coalition agreements must be submitted to the Knesset. Only after that is the new cabinet sworn in. In the likely event that Netanyahu is unable to announce by Tuesday that he has managed to form a government, the announcement will be postponed by one week.

Sources in Likud say it will take another week or two to complete the coalition talks. According to individuals involved in the talks, the main obstacle is a dispute between Shas chair Arye Dery and Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich over the finance portfolio, as well as the defense portfolio.

According to Likud sources, the most likely attempt at compromise will be to give Smotrich the Finance Ministry. In exchange, Shas will receive control of the Religious Services Ministry and Dery will be brought into the Interior Ministry which will be “expanded” by adding departments to it. In that event, Likud will keep the Defense Ministry for itself, presumably appointing MK Yoav Gallant to head it. However, it is still too soon to know. As of now, the parties are still not willing to accept the compromise, and discussions between Dery and Smotrich and between them and Likud will continue all day Sunday.

Despite the apparent agreement, Dery notified Netanyahu on Sunday that, as part of a right of first pick that Netanyahu had granted him, he wanted the finance post, paving the way for Smotrich to become Israel’s next defense minister.

After this issue is put to rest, the other portfolios can be distributed. It is already apparent that Smotrich will receive not only a senior ministerial post for himself, his party will receive two additional ministries that are considered to have medium importance. His co-leader in Religious Zionism, MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, is expected to receive the Public Security Ministry portfolio, but probably not receive the Transportation Ministry or the Education Ministry, as he had demanded. A source close to the negotiations said Ben-Gvir will probably be given the Agriculture Ministry, which is associated with his focus during his campaign on the issue of politically motivated sabotage of agricultural infrastructure.

The Haredi party United Torah Judaism expects that its new chair, Yitzchak Goldknopf, will be given the Housing Ministry, while MK Moshe Gafni will receive the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, as well as the post of deputy social equality minister and apparently deputy minister in the Education Ministry. Shas is slated to receive five ministries, which as noted, will depend on the outcome of the dispute over the Finance Ministry.

Meanwhile, the negotiating teams are also working on the other coalition demands. For example, the doubling of allowances to yeshiva students, which was already agreed between Likud and the Haredi parties. Smotrich also demanded, and has received, assurances that the illegal outposts in the West Bank will be moved ahead, and the enforcement of the law with regard to illegal Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank (territory that according to the Oslo Accords is under full Israeli military and administrative control), will be increased. It is believed that while the outposts will not be fully legalized, they will be given basic infrastructure such as water, electricity and roads. United Torah Judaism has specifically demanded that the illegal outpost of Itamar be legalized.

Ben-Gvir has demanded a number of significant changes in the authority of the public security minister; it is unclear whether his demands will be met. However, Ben-Gvir has already been promised an increase in the Public Security Ministry’s budget, although it is not known by how much.

Ben-Gvir is also demanding that the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev be assigned to the Public Security Ministry. Such a move will likely anger the Bedouin community. They have been critical of the agency even under Meir Cohen, whose appointment was not particularly controversial. Likud has not approved the move. The party may prefer to assign it to a different ministry, perhaps even the Prime Minister’s Office. These talks are also ongoing.

Meanwhile, on Friday, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who will be the opposition leader in the new Knesset, on Friday invited some of the future opposition parties’ leaders to a meeting to “plan together how to manage the opposition,” as a statement in his name said.

Present were National Unity Party chair and outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beiteinu chair and outgoing Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Labor Party chair and outgoing Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and United Arab List chair Mansour Abbas. The leaders of the largely Arab Hadash-Ta’al were not invited.

Ta’al leader MK Ahmad Tibi told Haaretz: “We have nothing to look for at a meeting of the heads of Lapid’s camp, we have no reason to coordinate anything with Lieberman in such meetings [we] are not participating.” Tibi added that the head of the Yesh Atid Knesset grouping, Boaz Toporovsky is expected to meet with him Sunday, but that they are expected to discuss the distribution of Knesset committee positions among members of the opposition. According to Tibi: “There might be a meeting with Lapid at a later stage.”

Gantz criticized Lapid on his Facebook page on Friday saying: “There were those who tried to lead this election to a tie, there were those who thought that the approach of the largest party would bring about this result.” Gantz added that he feared that the future coalition would promote legislation of the so-called override clause, that would allow the Knesset to override High Court of Justice rulings: “I want to hope that Netanyahu will not allow the override clause [to pass] – I’m not sure it’s under his control. His personal matters will override what is good and right for the state and therefore he will be in thrall to his extremist and inexperienced partners.”

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