Netanyahu rivals agree on an Israeli coalition to evict him

JERUSALEM – Israeli opposition parties announced Wednesday that they had reached a coalition agreement to form a government and oust Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history and a dominant figure who has pushed his country’s politics to the right.

The announcement could ease a political impasse that has resulted in four elections in two years and left Israel without a stable government or budget. If Parliament ratifies the fragile agreement in a vote of confidence in the coming days, it will, if only for a pause, lift the curtain on the term of office of a leader who defined Israel today more than anyone.

The new coalition is an unusual and delicate alliance between eight political parties of the most diverse ideologies, from the left to the far right. While some analysts have hailed them as reflecting the breadth and complexity of society today, others say their members are too incompatible for their contract to last, and see them as the embodiment of Israel’s political dysfunction.

The alliance will be led until 2023 by Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader and standard-bearer of religious nationalists, who is against a Palestinian state and wants Israel to annex the majority of the occupied West Bank. He is a former ally of Mr Netanyahu, who is often described as more right-wing than the prime minister.

If the government lasts a full term, it would be led between 2023 and 2025 by Yair Lapid, a centrist former television presenter who is considered the standard bearer for secular Israelis.

It was Mr Lapid who was selected four weeks ago by President Reuven Rivlin to try to form a new government. And it was Mr. Lapid who phoned Mr. Rivlin Wednesday night at 11:22 p.m., just 38 minutes before his mandate was due to expire, to tell him that he had put together a fragile coalition.

“I promise you, Mr. President, that this government will work to serve all the citizens of Israel, including those who are not members, respect those who oppose it, and do everything in their power to unite all parts . “Israeli society,” said Mr. Lapid, according to an advertisement provided by his office.

Mr. Bennett, 49, is the son of American immigrants and a former software entrepreneur, army command, and chief of staff to Mr. Netanyahu. His home is in central Israel, but he was once head of an umbrella organization, the Yesha Council, which represents Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Until the last election cycle, Mr Bennett was part of a political alliance with Bezalel Smotrich, a far right leader.

Although Mr Bennett’s party, Yamina, won only seven of the 120 seats in parliament, Mr Netanyahu could not be ousted without his support, allowing him to determine the terms of his participation in the coalition.

Mr Lapid, 57, is a former news anchor and journalist who became a politician nine years ago and later became finance minister in a Netanyahu-led coalition. His party finished second in the parliamentary elections in March, winning 17 seats. But Mr Lapid felt the removal of Mr Netanyahu was more important than asking to become the first prime minister.

In order not to exacerbate their differences, Mr Lapid and Mr Bennett have promised to focus on largely technocratic issues such as the economy and infrastructure and to stay away from more contentious issues such as trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, some commentators say Mr Bennett’s party will be under pressure to prove to its supporters that their right-wing instincts have not been tarnished by their coalition partners.

A harbinger of potential tension, Wednesday’s talks nearly collapsed after a disagreement over whether Ayelet Shaked, a key deputy to Mr Bennett, a proponent of major judicial reform, could join a committee that appoints new judges.

Some left-wing and centrist ministers are expected to anger their right-wing partners by promoting police reform or advocating curbing settlement expansion.

The alliance will also include an Arab Islamist party, Raam, which would become the first independent Arab group to join a government alliance in Israeli history. The agreement “secures the position of the Arab parties as influential and legitimate actors in the political arena,” the party said in a statement.

But their participation should also become a point of friction. Mr Bennett briefly withdrew from coalition talks during the recent war in Gaza, wary of entering into an alliance with a party led by Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Raam joined the coalition on the promise of greater rights and resources for Israel’s Arab minority – but some of their demands, including the repeal of a controversial housing law that disproportionately hinders the Arab minority, are viewed as unacceptable by some far-right members of the coalition.

In the meantime, Mr. Netanyahu, who remains deputy prime minister, is doing everything in his power to change the agreement. Israeli parliamentary speaker Yariv Levin is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and can postpone the vote of confidence to Monday June 14 through parliamentary procedures, constitutional experts said.

During this time, his party has promised to put pressure on right-wing members of the alliance to leave the ship, telling them that they have sold out by allying with left-wing and Arab lawmakers.

If Netanyahu fails to convince enough opponents, it means – at least for the time being – the end of his career at the top of Israeli politics, the longest term in office of an Israeli prime minister. Either way, he is making a lasting impression on Israeli life and is likely to seek to maintain significant influence as an opposition leader.

The presence of Mr Bennett on the threshold of power is evidence of how Mr Netanyahu has helped to shift the pendulum of Israeli politics decisively to the right.

Israelis understand developments in Israeli politics

    • Key characters. The main actors in the recent turnaround in Israeli politics have very different goals, but one common goal. Naftali Bennett, who leads a small right-wing party, and Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the Israeli opposition, have teamed up to form a multifaceted coalition to oust Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
    • Range of ideals. The coalition, which its supporters refer to as a “change of government”, stretches left to right across Israel’s fragmented political spectrum, drawing on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party that is likely to mean profound change for Israel.
    • A common goal. After a deadlock that led to four unsuccessful elections in two years, and an even longer period of polarizing politics and government paralysis, the coalition architects have promised to get Israel back on track.
    • An unclear future. Parliament still has to ratify the fragile agreement in a vote of confidence in the coming days. But even if so, it remains unclear how much change the “change of government” could bring to Israel, as some of the parties involved have little in common other than hostility towards Mr. Netanyahu.

Under the supervision of Mr. Netanyahu, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapsed and tensions between Jews and Arabs within Israel peaked in May when riots raged in mixed Jewish-Arab cities during the recent Gaza War.

By forging an electoral pact between far-right parties that would later help them win elected offices, Netanyahu also helped accelerate the influence of the far right on Israeli society and media debates.

Against this backdrop, he defied expectations and conventions by negotiating diplomatic deals with four Arab countries and undermining the assumption that Israel could only make peace with the Middle East once a final deal with the Palestinians was concluded.

He had a strong bond with former President Donald J. Trump, who brought Israel several diplomatic victories, moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed an American consulate dealing with Palestinian issues, and included and incorporated the Palestinian mission in Washington Agreement from the Obama era with Iran.

The latest impasse in Israeli politics is also a consequence of Mr Netanyahu’s divisive decision to remain in office despite being on trial for corruption.

In doing so, his critics argued, he undermined democratic norms and risked undermining the rule of law by attacking the judges in his case.

Mr Netanyahu denied the allegations, saying he had the right to remain in office to defend himself against an attempted coup through the back door.

But many, even at his own base, disagreed, creating a political cul-de-sac where Mr Netanyahu retained just enough support to stay in power but not enough to form a stable government – which ended up with the four unsuccessful elections for the past two years resulted in March.

A desire to avoid a fifth election eventually led Mr. Bennett to abandon Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing camp and join forces with rivals who, like Mr. Lapid, do not share most of his long-term political visions.

If Parliament approves his government, Mr. Bennett will take office just as a new President, Isaac Herzog, will take his. Mr Herzog, a former leader of the centrist Labor party, was elected president by lawmakers on Wednesday. He will take office in July and assume the largely ceremonial role for the next seven years.

Mr Bennett’s administration, if they put the confidence vote in parliament, could fall much sooner.

Should it collapse, some analysts believe that Mr. Lapid could come out with more credit than Mr. Bennett. While Mr. Bennett is making the first attempt at premieres, his decision to partner with centrists and leftists has angered his already small following.

“Lapid made very strong decisions, showed an amazing level of maturity, and really made a big statement about a different kind of leadership,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political analyst and pollster with the Century Foundation, a New Yorker. established research group. “That will not have escaped the Israeli public.”

Adam Rasgon, Isabel Kershner, Gabby Sobelman and Carol Sutherland contributed to the coverage.

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