Israel’s opposition parties have banded together to try and form a minority government that could unseat the country’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and head off the country’s fifth election in two years.
The self-styled “change government” must now present its plans to President Reuven Rivlin. If he approves the proposal the 120-seat Knesset must vote on it, a process that will take at least a week to arrange.
“Four elections have already damaged the state — the political crisis in Israel is unprecedented in the world,” Naftali Bennett, who leads rightwing, pro-settlements party Yamina, said in a primetime address on Sunday night. “I am going to work with all my strength to form a government with my friend Yair Lapid,” he added, referring to the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid.
With 57 seats, the minority government will need the support of Islamist party Ra’am, which has four seats, to cross the 61-seat threshold to form a government.
If Netanyahu can convince at least one member of the rightwing parties in the planned coalition to defect, he could scuttle the slim majority his opponents are aiming for.
“Bennett has committed the fraud of the century,” Netanyahu said following Bennett’s address. “His empty words have transferred votes from the right to the left – the only thing he cares about is being prime minister.”
If the opposition succeeds, the government will initially be headed by Bennett, a one-time Netanyahu ally. The party has just six seats in the Knesset after losing the support of one member who refused to join the new coalition.
He would share a rotating premiership with Lapid, a former television presenter whose Yesh Atid has 17 seats. The rest of the coalition is made up of a constellation of parties stretching from the far-left Meretz to the rightwing New Hope.
But the coalition hinges on the support of Mansour Abbas, who heads Ra’am. In return for its support, the party is seeking protections for conservative Muslim lifestyles and funding for more police, hospitals and civic resources for Arab-dominated cities in the north of Israel.
In the past 25 months Israel has held four elections that ended in stalemate, yielding one shortlived coalition that Netanyahu himself brought to an end in December 2020 as he launched the world’s fastest coronavirus vaccination program in the expectation it would help him secure victory in the subsequent election. But the March polls were inconclusive.
Lapid and Bennet’s talks aimed at forming a new administration were abandoned earlier this month after the outbreak of 11-days of conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group. The violence worsened a spate of communal strife between Arabs and Jews living in Israel, sparked serious unrest in the occupied West Bank and claimed nearly 250 lives in the Gaza Strip.
If successful in forming a government, the new coalition will end the reign of Israel’s longest serving prime minister, who has been at the helm of the Jewish State since 2009 following a three-year term in the 1990s.
Netanyahu would find himself unseated just as his trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust picks up steam in Jerusalem’s District Court. He has dismissed the charges as a politically motivated witch-hunt, aimed at toppling his premiership.
As prime minister, Netanyahu has assailed the courts, attorneys-general and police investigators, accusing them of bias. As leader of the opposition, his influence would be far more muted.
Bennett and Lapid will struggle to hold together an ideologically disharmonious coalition of rightwing, centrist and leftwing factions dependent upon an Arab party’s support. Bennett underlined his rightwing credentials in his address, describing himself as the one-time leader of a council of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, considered illegal by the international community.
“This is not a government that will return parts of the land of Israel. It will be capable of embarking on war if necessary,” he said.
Ra’am broke away from Israel’s other Arab parties, which have only ever once supported a minority government, by offering its support to any coalition that would take its demands seriously, seeking to wield influence in the country’s gridlocked politics.
Netanyahu on Sunday offered Bennett, and another former ally, Gideon Sa’ar, who heads a breakaway faction of ex-Likud leaders, a three-way rotating premiership in an attempt to form his own government.
Sa’ar would have had 15-months at the helm of the Jewish State, Netanyahu two years and Bennett the remainder of the five-year term. However, Sa’ar had campaigned on a promise to unseat Netanyahu and refused the offer of an alliance that would keep him in power
“We are at a fateful moment for Israel’s security, character and future, when you put aside any personal considerations and take far-reaching and even unprecedented steps,” Netanyahu said before the proposal was rejected.