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Unlikely alliance forms Israeli government to unseat Netanyahu
middle east

Unlikely alliance forms Israeli government to unseat Netanyahu

4 min. 03.06.2021
A mix of ideological camps united to end the prime minister’s run.
Head of the Arab Israeli Islamic conservative party Raam Mansour Abbas (R) signing  a coalition agreement with Israel's opposition leader Yair Lapid (L) and right-wing nationalist tech millionaire Naftali Bennett in Ramat Gan near the coastal city of Tel Aviv.
Head of the Arab Israeli Islamic conservative party Raam Mansour Abbas (R) signing a coalition agreement with Israel's opposition leader Yair Lapid (L) and right-wing nationalist tech millionaire Naftali Bennett in Ramat Gan near the coastal city of Tel Aviv.
Photo credit: AFP

Benjamin Netanyahu, whose record-long grip on Israeli politics has faltered in the face of corruption charges and a polarized society, is on the brink of being unseated by the unlikeliest government in the country’s history.

In a development that looked far-fetched just weeks ago, opposition leader Yair Lapid notified President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday that he managed to put together a diverse coalition of parties that set aside conflicting ideologies to oust the prime minister and put an end to 2 1/2 years of political turmoil.

Under the coalition agreement, Lapid, a centrist, is to share power with nationalist Naftali Bennett, who would be Netanyahu’s immediate replacement. And in a historic first, an Arab faction is to become part of an Israeli governing alliance.

The coalition, sewn up less than an hour before a midnight deadline, is to be brought before parliament for ratification within the coming week. Yet with the support of only half of the legislature, and so many parties under one tent, its survival could prove to be a day-to-day challenge.

“The different parties share little besides a desire to unseat Netanyahu -- and to keep him from returning,” Eurasia Group senior analyst Henry Rome said.

The coalition is an amalgam of religious, secular, nationalist, leftist, centrist and Arab parties. The 49-year-old Bennett, a former defense minister who opposes Palestinian statehood and takes a hard line on Iran, is to serve as prime minister for the first two years. Lapid, 57, a former finance minister whose political career has focused on economic and social issues, is to take the reins the following two.

The political upheaval, if consummated, would end Netanyahu’s combined 15 years in office, and was catalyzed by multiple accusations of influence peddling that have landed him in a Jerusalem courtroom. It would also plunge Netanyahu, who says he’s innocent of any wrongdoing, into an even deeper legal nightmare by quashing the possibility he could halt his trial with legislation shielding a sitting leader from prosecution.

Such legislation has been a major impetus behind his efforts to stay in power, even at the expense of four elections over the past two years that have plunged Israel’s body politic into chaos.

Politically, a new government would end an era that spanned decades of transformation. Since his first term beginning in 1996, Netanyahu -- Israel’s longest-serving leader -- pulled the country sharply to the right on security and peacemaking, while dismantling much of the socialist legacy of Israel’s founders.

On the international stage, he opposed world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which he sees as a threat to global peace, and disavowed the “land for peace” approach to peacemaking with the Palestinians, which he says compromises Israel’s security. Iran’s nuclear ambitions and mounting influence in the Middle East helped Netanyahu to engineer detente with Saudi Arabia and normalize ties with Muslim-majority states in the Persian Gulf and Africa.

Israel’s recent conflict with the militant group Hamas, however, undercut his argument that concessions to the Palestinians needn’t be a prerequisite to regional peace efforts. The fighting stirred up popular discontent against the accords with Israel in Gulf Arab states and elsewhere, making it clear that the Palestinian statehood cause can’t be sidelined indefinitely.

Netanyahu’s successors, with their disparate agendas, are expected to leave contentious issues like relations with the Palestinians to the future. Instead, their immediate focus may be on urgent matters such as drafting a national budget for the first time in three years to accelerate Israel’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Just weeks ago, the new coalition’s formation had looked doomed by the conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, when Bennett pulled out of negotiations with prospective partners already outside his comfort zone. But the former defense minister, who had pledged to do the utmost to avoid a fifth election, threw his lot in with the anti-Netanyahu bloc on Sunday, after having concluded there was no way to form a right-wing government under the current circumstances.

The governing alliance, however, could be just one crisis away from falling apart. Bennett’s hawkish and predominantly religious Yamina party seeks to strengthen the state’s Jewish character and annex West Bank land the Palestinians claim for a future state.

Lapid takes a more moderate approach to peacemaking with the Palestinians, though diplomatic and security matters have not been at the center of his attention. Their alliance will also have to cope with the demands of left-wing parties that advocate sweeping territorial concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for peace, and those of the United Arab List, the first Arab faction in government in Israel’s 73-year history.

“It will be hard to work in this government,” said Meir Rubin, executive director at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum. “You don’t see the politicians saying they’ll carry out flagship reforms because that would require cooperation between ministries.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.


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