JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's two largest political parties endorsed Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister Wednesday, all but guaranteeing him a third term at the beginning of the post-election process of forming a new government.
Netanyahu's Likud Party and the new Yesh Atid Party made their recommendations to President Shimon Peres, who consults with all 12 parties that won parliamentary seats in last week's election before deciding whom to choose as prime minister-designate. Peres is expected to make his decision by Friday.
With Netanyahu at the head of the largest faction in parliament, Peres is almost certain to appoint him. Netanyahu would then have up to six weeks to form a coalition government. Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list won 31 seats in the election, far ahead of all rivals.
"There is really only one candidate who can build a government in Israel, one which must be as broad as possible," Education Minister Gideon Saar, a top Likud official, told Peres, referring to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu would need to control 61 seats to secure a majority in the 120-member parliament.
Yesh Atid's leader, political newcomer Yair Lapid, told Peres on Wednesday evening that Netanyahu should be premier.
"Yesh Atid's platform says that the party with the most seats should lead the government," Lapid said.
The comments removed some of the drama from the coalition-building process in the coming weeks. Lapid is expected to become Netanyahu's main coalition partner. His party won 19 seats.
The composition of the rest of the government is still up in the air as Netanyahu and Lapid prepare to discuss policy guidelines. The two share common ground on some key domestic issues but could find themselves at odds over the critical issue of pursuing peace with the Palestinians.
Lapid, a former TV talk-show host and newspaper columnist, campaigned as an average citizen fighting for Israel's struggling middle class. He criticized the country's high cost of living and its expensive system of handouts and draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox seminary students.
He has vowed to force ultra-Orthodox men to join their secular counterparts in performing compulsory military or national service.
While peacemaking was not a major part of Lapid's campaign, he has been critical of Netanyahu's failure to advance peace efforts and said he won't join a government that doesn't pursue peace. Lapid has indicated he is willing to make more generous concessions to the Palestinians than Netanyahu.
To ensure a parliamentary majority, Lapid and Netanyahu need at least one more mid-sized partner. The most likely candidates appear to be either the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which seems likely to fight any reform in the draft law, or the pro-settler Jewish Home, which would resist any attempt to reach peace with the Palestinians.
With peace talks deadlocked for the past four years and the draft dispute a key campaign issue, the next government could end up focusing more effort on domestic concerns.
In a gesture to Lapid, whose strong showing in the election surprised the country, Netanyahu has said his next government would pursue three major domestic policy goals: bringing ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into the military, increasing the stock of affordable housing and changing the fragmented multiparty system. Netanyahu has only vaguely alluded to peacemaking as a priority.
In an attempt to get negotiations back on track, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he wants to meet with newly elected Israeli parliament members, including Lapid, to lay out his views on peace.
The post-election process officially got under way Wednesday as Peres was handed the official results of the election, shortly before he began hosting party leaders.
Once chosen, the premier-designate has 28 days to present his coalition to the parliament for approval, with an extension of 14 days if needed.
Israel's new members of parliament are scheduled to be sworn in next week.