It is not over till it’s over.
News that two major opposition parties have agreed to form a coalition government has dealt a major political blow to the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
However, this is not the first time Netanyahu has been fighting for political survival. He has already signaled that he will not go quietly – and strong differences between the ideologies of the opposition could mean the failure of the fragile coalition.
“This is the most difficult coalition in Israeli history and is far from over,” wrote Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who wrote a biography of Netanyahu. said on twitter.
How we got here
Israel’s complex parliamentary system means that Netanyahu would only be replaced as prime minister if an unwieldy, ideologically diverse coalition of left, center and right parties agreed to bury their differences and unite against him in a coalition government.
The precarious position that Netanyahu finds itself is the result of an inconclusive election on March 23rd – Israel’s fourth in two years.
While Netanyahu’s Likud party won the largest number of representatives, it failed to secure the 61 seats required to form a majority in the 120-seat Knesset or in the parliament of Israel. No single party has ever won a direct majority in the Knesset, making government coalitions a fact of life in Israel.
Netanyahu was given the opportunity to form a ruling coalition, but these efforts failed and prompted Israel’s figurehead to turn the task over to the opposition.
At the head of these charges was Yair Lapid of Israel’s second largest and centrist party, Yesh Atid. Lapid – a former radio journalist – had the support of smaller liberal parties in Israel, but was initially unable to unite the anti-Netanyahu coalition under his leadership.
Step inside Naftali Bennett, a former defense minister and former Netanyahu ally who has become a rival and leads the small religious and tenacious Yamina party. While Yamina only controls seven seats in the Knesset, those seats appear to be the number that Lapid could get over the finish line to form a majority.
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Bennett, a far-right former West Bank settlement movement leader, had previously said he would refuse to serve in any government alongside centrist Lapid. But that changed on Sunday evening with a dramatic announcement.
Bennett accused political uncertainty and a possible fifth election as a greater threat to Israel than ideological differences and said he would team up with Lapid.
“It is my intention to do my best to form a government of national unity with my friend Yair Lapid so that, God willing, together we can save the country from a tailspin and bring Israel back on its course,” said Bennett.
That a former settler leader would team up with a centrist like Lapid underscores the deep-seated urge of many in Israeli politics to end Netanyahu’s term in office.
The Netanyahu era
The 71-year-old Netanyahu has been at the top since 2009 and has made alliances with smaller religious and nationalist parties to win and stay in power. Over the years he has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, alienating a long list of former allies during his long tenure. Three parties in the last election were led by former top aides who grappled with him.
Prior to the last vote, Netanyahu presented himself as a global statesman who is best placed to tackle the complex diplomatic and security challenges facing the only Jewish state in the world. He has touted his close relationship with former President Donald Trump and Israel’s agreements to normalize relations with four Arab states last year as evidence of his diplomatic expertise. Netanyahu has also sponsored Israel’s world-leading vaccine launch, which enabled the country to reopen most of its economy after months of government lockdowns.
However, some critics have accused him of largely ill-treating the pandemic over the past year, pointing out that Israel has recorded more than 6,000 deaths from Covid-19. They also point out Netanyahu’s legal problems: a major corruption lawsuit was launched against him for fraud, bribery and breach of trust last month. Netanyahu – the first incumbent prime minister charged with a crime – denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a “witch hunt”.
After Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in the March elections, the prime minister wooed his rivals and made unprecedented contact with the leader of a small Islamist-Arab party in the hope of cobbling together a ruling coalition. But those efforts failed – Lapid had four weeks to unite a patchwork of parties.
Who is on board?
Lapid’s proposed “government of change” would be composed of unlikely bedfellows from across the political spectrum – right, centrist and left parties. He has until Wednesday to finish the task.
On Friday, Lapid’s Yesh Atid said he had agreements with Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party and the New Hope Party – a die-hard nationalist faction made up mostly of ex-Netanyahu allies. The Social Democratic Labor Party, which ruled the country for decades after the country was founded in 1948, also stepped in.
Then came Bennett’s announcement.
Bennett and Lapid have until Wednesday to finalize a contract that is each expected to serve two years as prime ministers on a rotation contract, with Bennett holding the job first.
An important potential roadblock? An anti-Netanyahu alliance would most likely require the support of outside Arab MPs who oppose much of Bennett’s agenda. The coalition must conclude agreements between eight different parties before Wednesday. After Bennett’s announcement, talks about the deals continued into the early hours of Monday morning.
What’s happening now
Bennett’s Sunday announcement that he would reunite with Lapid – calling him a “friend” – sounded like the final nail in Netanyahu’s premier coffin to many.
But the longtime Israeli leader should not be counted yet. Shortly after Bennett’s announcement, Netanyahu launched the attack.
“This is a scam,” he said on TV announcements. “This is not a national unity government, it is an anti-Zionist government. This is a fraud government and we should not allow this to happen.”
Lapid called Netanyahu’s comments about a coalition “dangerous and awkward” and said they underscore the need for new leadership in Israel.
“A country that is divided and violent will not be able to deal with Iran or the economy,” he said. “I want to remind you of something we forgot – the fact that you disagree with someone doesn’t mean that you hate them. The fact that someone is arguing with you doesn’t make them an enemy. “
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Associated Press that Netanyahu won’t stop undermining coalition efforts until the ink is dry – with appeals to hardliners in both Bennett’s party and New Hope for their support for that New withdrawing coalition. A failure of just one or two lawmakers could prevent Lapid from getting a majority and forcing another election, Plesner told the AP.
“Anything could happen,” said Plesner. “I would wait for the final vote to be finalized.”
What if it goes through?
“History teaches us that it would be unwise to write to him [Netanyahu] out, “added Plesner.