Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on the Premiership of Israel looks a little less secure after a deadline to build a new government passed at midnight.
Seconds before the deadline passed, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Likud party announced he had returned the mandate to form a new government back to President Reuven Rivlin.
The onus is now on the President to decide which of Israel’s other political leaders he might entrust with the task of trying to form a governing coalition, or whether to pursue a different path to secure a breakthrough.
The favourite to get the nod is centrist Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party came second behind Netanyahu’s Likud in the March 23rd election.
Lapid is a one-time Finance Minister who entered politics in 2012 after a successful career as a TV news anchor.
But even if Lapid is given the mandate, the key man in coalition negotiations looks set to be Naftali Bennett, a former Defense Minister and leader of the right-wing Yamina party.
Even though his party won only seven seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Bennett finds himself in the extraordinary position of having been offered the Prime Ministership by both Netanyahu and Lapid, both of whom have offered him a rotation arrangement and said he can go first.
Up to now, Bennett has said his preference is for a right-wing administration, but he has not ruled out a unity government straddling a wide array of parties from right to left.
Israel’s fourth election in under two years, like the previous three, was seen first and foremost as a referendum on Israel’s longest-serving leader.
Netanyahu has been on trial since last May on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.
He denies the charges and has used them as a rallying cry for his right-wing base, describing the proceedings as a witch-hunt pursued by liberal elites and the media.
But his campaign was not enough to prevent another deadlocked parliament, which prompted the Israeli leader to attempt to bring together some unlikely bedfellows in his efforts to stay in power.
His hopes were dashed when the extreme-right wing Religious Zionist party refused to be part of any government which had the support of the United Arab List, an Islamist party which had itself broken new ground by making clear it could support a government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
With the mandate now back in his hands, the President is set to consult with parties before deciding on his next move, expected within the next few days.
Until any new government is agreed and sworn into office, Benjamin Netanyahu remains Israel’s Prime Minister.