Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents pushed on Thursday for a quick vote to end his record-setting rule, racing to head off what is expected to be a frantic effort by the 71-year-old and his allies to derail the newly announced coalition.
The new phase of political warfare began just hours after opposition leader Yair Lapid and his main coalition partner Naftali Bennett – an ideological odd couple – declared late on Wednesday night they reached a deal to form a new government.
The announcement triggered a complex process likely to stretch over the next week, giving Netanyahu time to try to pressure coalition members ideologically aligned with him to quit the group.
With the threat of possible jail time hanging over him in his ongoing trial on corruption charges, Netanyahu is unlikely to allow his record 12 straight years to end without a messy fight, analysts warned.
On Thursday, he was already on Twitter seeking to play on any last-minute misgivings among right-wing lawmakers about allying with the left against him.
“All lawmakers who were elected with votes from the right must oppose this dangerous left-wing government,” Netanyahu said.
Should last-minute defections scupper the “change” alliance, Israel would likely have to hold yet another election, the fifth in just over two years.
“Opening the champagne right now is a bit hasty,” said Tamar Hermann, a political scientist at the Israel Democracy Institute.
‘Betraying right-wing values’
The question is whether the coalition of 61 votes would hold together through a vote of the 120-member Knesset – and who would preside over that vote?
Netanyahu has accused the former allies who joined the incoming coalition of betraying right-wing values. His supporters have demonstrated and launched vicious social media campaigns, repeating the message Netanyahu has been sending over the past week as the new coalition coalesced.
One factor working in Netanyahu’s favour: the parliament speaker is an ally who could use his position to delay the vote and give Netanyahu more time to sabotage the coalition.
The prime minister and his allies called a meeting later on Thursday to plot their next steps, and it was unclear whether his opponents could name a new parliament speaker to preside over a Knesset vote required to confirm the new government.
If it goes through, Lapid and a diverse array of partners that span the Israeli political spectrum will end Netanyahu’s rule.
Under the agreement, Lapid and Bennett will split the job of prime minister in a rotation. Bennett, a former ally of Netanyahu, is to serve the first two years, while Lapid is to serve the final two years – though it is far from certain their fragile coalition will last that long.
The opposition leaders’ historic deal also includes the small United Arab List, which would make it the first party of Palestinian citizens of Israel ever to be part of a governing coalition in Israel.
United Arab List’s leader Mansour Abbas has cast aside differences with Bennett, an advocate of annexing most of the occupied West Bank.
A dentist by profession, Abbas said he hopes to improve conditions for Palestinian citizens who complain of discrimination and government neglect.
“We decided to join the government in order to change the balance of political forces in the country,” the 47-year-old said in a message to supporters after signing the coalition agreement.
Abbas’s party said the agreement includes the allocation of more than 53 billion shekels ($16bn) to improve infrastructure and combat violent crime in Palestinian towns.
It also includes provisions freezing demolition of homes built without permits in Palestinian villages and granting official status to Bedouin towns in the Negev desert, a stronghold for support, the party said.
“I say here clearly and frankly: when the very establishment of this government is based on our support … we will be able to influence it and accomplish great things for our Arab society,” Abbas said.
On Twitter, Netanyahu – who once drew accusations of racism by urging his supporters to get out and vote because “Arabs are flocking to the polls in droves” – highlighted the new alliance’s links with Abbas.
Netanyahu posted an old video clip of Bennett saying Abbas “visited terrorist murderers in jail” after a 1992 attack in which Palestinian citizens of Israel killed three soldiers.
Meanwhile, Sami Abou Shehadeh, leader of the Palestinian nationalist Balad Party, said he opposed the coalition.
“Our issue is not the personality of Benjamin Netanyahu, we have nothing personal against the man. We are against his policies, and we are not seeing a serious change coming with the new government [coalition] being led by a very famous settler, or a supporter of settlements, Naftali Bennett,” Abou Shehadeh told Al Jazeera.
“What we need is a serious change in Israeli policies, not in the personalities. The situation was very bad before Netanyahu, and as long as Israel insists on its own policies, it will continue to being bad after Netanyahu. This is why we oppose this government [new coalition].”
Netanyahu – desperate to remain in office while he fights corruption charges – is expected to do everything possible in the coming days to prevent the new coalition from taking power. If he fails, he will be pushed into the opposition.
Political analysts widely expected Netanyahu to try to pick off what one described as “low-hanging fruit”, seizing upon members of Yamina – Bennett’s party – who are unhappy about joining forces with Palestinian and left-wing lawmakers.
Tamar Zandberg, a Meretz legislator, acknowledged the difficulties in getting the alliance her party joined off the ground.
“The coalition’s test … is to be sworn in. That won’t be without rough patches and problems,” she said on Army Radio on Thursday.
Netanyahu controls 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, almost twice as many as Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, and he is allied with at least three other religious and nationalist parties.
A source involved in the coalition talks said the proposed new government will try to retain consensus by avoiding hot-button ideological issues such as whether to annex or cede occupied West Bank territory that Palestinians want for a state.
Bennet has said the creation of an independent Palestine would be suicide for Israel. He made annexation of parts of the territory Israel captured in the 1967 war a major feature of his political platform, but following through on that with the broad new coalition looks to be politically unfeasible.
And any renewed violence in the Gaza Strip could shake the broad alliance.
During his tenure as prime minister, Netanyahu has often been a polarising figure at home and abroad.
He has said a Bennett-Lapid coalition would endanger Israel’s security – an allusion to efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear programme and managing the Palestinian issue.
Lapid, a centrist who campaigned under a pledge to “return sanity” to Israel, was given the task of forming a government after Netanyahu failed to do so in the wake of an inconclusive March election.
Netanyahu’s rivals have cited the criminal charges against him as the main reason why Israel needs a new leader, arguing he might use a new term to legislate immunity to shield himself.
“This government … will respect its opponents and do all it can to unite and connect all parts of Israeli society,” Lapid said on Twitter.
The new government, if it is sworn in, will face considerable challenges. As well as Iran and the moribund peace process with the Palestinians, it also faces a war crimes probe by the International Criminal Court and economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.
Bennett has said its members would have to compromise on such ideological issues in order to get the country back on track.