Israel’s parliament will be sworn in Thursday without a new government formed as a deadlocked general election leaves Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scrambling to find a path to extend his long tenure in power.
Members of parliament elected in September 17 polls will take their oaths of office at 4 pm (1300 GMT) in a ceremony that will to a large degree be hollow due to deadlocked coalition talks.
The stalemate has even raised the risk that the new parliament’s term will be extremely short since it could cause yet another election.
It would be the third in the space of a year after April polls too ended inconclusively, with Netanyahu unable to form a coalition afterwards.
The prime minister faces even longer odds this time, and as a result has been seeking to form a unity government that would include his main opponent Benny Gantz and his centrist Blue and White alliance.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s lawyers are seeking to fend off corruption charges against him at a four-day, closed-door hearing that began at the attorney general’s office on Wednesday.
His unity government efforts have failed so far, with the two sides at odds on a range of issues, including who would be prime minister first in a rotation arrangement.
On Thursday morning, Netanyahu met with ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party could end up as kingmakers.
Lieberman has declined to endorse either Netanyahu or Gantz for now and has called for a unity government between the three parties.
Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud said the meeting ended without a breakthrough, while Lieberman said afterwards that he had reiterated his demand for a unity administration.
Lieberman said in a statement that “in light of security and economic challenges, a unity government is the order of the day”.
“Further elections will not materially change the political map,” said the former Netanyahu ally turned rival.
Blue and White finished with the largest number of seats in the election — 33 compared to Likud’s 32.
Neither has a clear path to a majority coalition, but Netanyahu received one more endorsement for prime minister than Gantz from MPs, resulting in President Reuven Rivlin tasking him with forming a government last week.
He has 28 days to do so, but has signalled he may inform Rivlin before that he is unable to form a government — a political tactic, not a sign he is throwing in the towel.
Rivlin would then have to decide whether to ask Gantz to try to form a government or demand that parliament agree on a candidate with a vote of at least 61 out of 120 members.
The president has set out a unity government compromise that could see Netanyahu remain prime minister, but step aside if indicted while retaining the title.
Gantz would then take over on an interim basis.
Netanyahu says he wants to negotiate based on that proposal, but Gantz has rejected it, saying his Blue and White cannot serve in a government with a prime minister facing a severe indictment.
He also says he should be prime minister first under any rotation arrangement since his party has the most seats.
Netanyahu has shown no sign he would yield the post he has held for more than 13 years, the longest in Israeli history, to allow Gantz to be premier first in a unity government.
While parliament is being sworn in, Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing will continue across town.
Only Netanyahu’s lawyers and not the prime minister himself are attending the hearing, which gives them a last chance to convince Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit not to file corruption charges.
Mandelblit has said he intends to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases.
Netanyahu, who denies all the allegations, is accused of acting on behalf of wealthy supporters and businessmen in exchange for gifts or favourable news coverage.
The first day of the hearing on Wednesday stretched some 11 hours.
Following the hearing’s conclusion on Monday, the attorney general’s deliberations on whether to issue the indictments are expected to continue for weeks.
Separately on Thursday, Arab Israeli MPs will not attend the swearing in as they will take part in a general strike over violence in Arab communities and what they call the lack of a police response.
The mainly Arab Joint List won 13 seats in the election, making it the third-largest bloc in parliament.