Netanyahu now has 28 days to form a government
Israel's president nominated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday to try to form a government after the latest inconclusive election but voiced doubt that any lawmaker can forge a parliamentary majority.
The March 23 election, Israel's fourth in under two years, did not produce a clear path for any candidate to form a coalition capable of commanding a majority in the 120-member parliament, prolonging an unprecedented phase of political gridlock.
On Monday, President Reuvin Rivlin held the traditional round of consultations that follow each Israeli election, seeking recommendations from party representatives on whom they want to form a government.
Netanyahu secured 52 recommendations, counting 30 from his right-wing Likud party, plus support from Israel's two ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious parties and the far-right Religious Zionism alliance.
Centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid earned 45 endorsements. There were 16 abstentions and religious nationalist leader Naftali Bennett claimed the seven votes controlled by his Yamina party.
Rivlin said the tally indicates that "Benjamin Netanyahu has a slightly higher chance of forming a government. Accordingly, I have decided to entrust him with the task of doing so."
But, echoing the sentiments of many Israeli analysts, he warned a 61-seat absolute majority may not be possible in the deeply divided legislature.
Rivlin said his consultations, "lead me to believe that no candidate has a realistic chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of the Knesset."
'Not an easy decision'
As Rivlin was holding his talks on Monday, Netanyahu was on trial across the city at Jerusalem District Court, charged with accepting improper gifts and illegally trading regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.
In the prosecution's opening arguments and testimony from its first witness, Netanyahu was accused of using his influence to ensure the popular Walla site portrayed him favourably while smearing his rivals.
Rivlin, whose antipathy for Netanyahu is well known, said giving the mandate to Netanyahu was "not an easy decision on a moral and ethical basis."
"I know the position held by many, that the president should not give the role to a candidate that is facing criminal charges, but according to the law and the decision of the courts, a prime minister can continue in his role even when he is facing charges," the president said.
Lapid reacted to the announcement by conceding that "the president fulfilled his duty and had no choice."
"But assigning the mandate to Netanyahu is a shameful disgrace that tarnishes Israel and shames our status as a law-abiding state," he added.
Netanyahu now has 28 days to form a government, which can be extended by a further two weeks.
His path to a 61-seat majority is precarious.
To raise his tally above 52, he will likely need support from his estranged former protege, religious-nationalist Naftali Bennett, whose Yamina party controls seven seats.
According to Monday's court testimony, Bennett was the main target of Netanyahu's media smear campaign.
The prime minister will also likely require backing from the Islamic conservative Raam party.
Its leader, Mansour Abbas, has said he is open to dealing with Netanyahu if it helps improve living standards for Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, but Religious Zionism has ruled out sitting with Raam, complicating Netanyahu's coalition prospects.
In an address on late Monday, Lapid sought to foster unity in the anti-Netanyahu camp, with a direct appeal to Bennett.
"We need a government of national agreement... to prevent a government led by a criminal suspect," a reference to Netanyahu, whom Lapid called "dangerous."
Lapid offered Bennett a revolving premiership in which the Yamina leader would take the first turn, an extraordinary gesture given his 45 prime ministerial endorsements dwarfed Bennett's seven.
"The test for a leader is to take tough decisions in complex situations," Lapid said, arguing that sacrifices would be required to unseat the divisive Netanyahu.
If Netanyahu fails to form a majority government within his negotiating window, Rivlin will likely turn to Lapid.
If neither Netanyahu nor his rivals manage to form a government, voters could be asked to return to the polls for the fifth election in barely two years.