A flurry of promises, backroom deal-making and last-minute shifts in political allegiance marked what seems to be the final days of Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure as prime minister of Israel.
When the dust settled, Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s former defence minister and chief of staff, appeared poised to emerge as prime minister, leading an unlikely coalition that spans the breadth of the Israeli political spectrum — from hawkish right-wing parties to centrists and left-wing activists.
The last-minute drama comes ahead of a Wednesday deadline set for opposition parties to form a coalition government, after Israel’s March 23 election — the fourth since 2019 — failed to produce a decisive victory for either Netanyahu or his opposition.
On Sunday night, Bennett, a former Netanyahu protégé, announced he had reached a deal with former TV anchorman-turned-politician Yair Lapid and his centrist Yesh Atid party to form the backbone of a new coalition government.
“Four elections and another two months have proven to everyone the option of a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu simply doesn’t exist. It’s either with elections or a unity government,” Bennett said in a speech Sunday night.
In order to form a government, a party leader must secure the support of a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament. Because no single party controls a majority on its own, coalitions are usually built with smaller partners.
Procedural hurdles remain, but if the coalition is approved in the Knesset, Bennett, a right-wing nationalist, would enter into a two-year rotation as prime minister with Lapid — who was Netanyahu’s strongest opposition and whose party is filled with secular centrists and some social activists. Lapid would begin his term as foreign minister.
Responding to the announcement, Netanyahu delivered a searing speech on Sunday, warning of the danger of allowing the coalition to go ahead.
“A government like this is a danger to the security of Israel and is also a danger to the future of the state,” he said.
Not a done deal
While Sunday’s announcements could potentially upend Israeli politics, analysts say it’s too early to start writing Netanyahu’s political obituary.
“We really can’t count on this [coalition government] coming to fruition,” warned Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst and public opinion expert based in Tel Aviv. “It looks dramatic, but we’ve been in many dramatic moments before over the last two years.”
She said that given the tumultuous and unpredictable nature of Israeli politics in recent years, nothing is guaranteed until all of the deals are done and the final votes are counted.
“I think that many people are really sick of this and would like to see a government created. It looks like a breakthrough, possibly, but there are still so many things that can go wrong,” Scheindlin told CBC News.
Netanyahu’s last stand
The political manoeuvring comes as Netanyahu stands trial for charges of breach of trust, fraud and bribery. Each of the last four elections have essentially been referendums on his leadership, and each has ended in deadlock.
On Sunday, in an attempt to save his job, Netanyahu proposed what he described as an “unconventional” plan: a three-way rotation for prime minister, with himself, Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, his former interior minister.
WATCH | Netanyahu’s days as Israel’s PM may be numbered:
The offer comes after Bennett was poised to oust Netanyahu early in May when he was set to join Lapid in a coalition that included Mansour Abbas, leader of the Ra’am Party, a Hebrew acronym that stands for the United Arab List. But when Israeli forces responded to rocket attacks from Palestinian militants in Gaza, a historic deal involving an Israeli-Arab party became politically toxic and Bennett backed away.
That Netanyahu still has an outside chance of remaining in power speaks to his hold on a strong segment of the Israeli electorate, Scheindlin said.
Over the last four elections, Netanyahu has retained about one-quarter of Israeli voters, more than any other party.
“It’s been 12 years, there have been many opportunities along the way where Netanyahu might have lost power [but] every time he has managed to squeak by,” she said.
Supporters still love ‘Bibi’
At Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market, a stronghold of support for Netanyahu’s Likud party, shop owner Shimon Sabag said he hopes “Bibi” — as Netanyahu is known — will hold on.
“We’re going to miss him. If he’s going to go now, we’re going to miss him a lot,” he told CBC News.
Zeba Adler, a therapist, said she wants Netanyahu to remain in power and hopes the country is not headed for a fifth election.
“I believe it’s a waste of time because Bibi’s going to be elected again. There is no other choice.”
As for Naftali Bennett as potentially the new prime minister, Sabag is less impressed.
“He has no loyalty,” Sabag said. “Every day he’s in another party, every day he says something else.”
Who is Naftali Bennett?
A tech millionaire, Bennett has said it was his military service in the 2006 war with Hezbollah that led him into a life of politics. He served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008 before leading his own party.
Analysts say if he forms a coalition, he could be the country’s most right-wing prime minister. Bennett supports Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and is firmly against the creation of a Palestinian state. He’s also reportedly made incendiary remarks against Arabs.”
With his hard-line stance on issues such as annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, Scheindlin said it’s not clear how the proposed Bennett-Lapid coalition would govern.
“What we don’t know is how much any one party will be able to get its way, considering that it’s got coalition partners who are ideologically quite opposed,” she said.
On Sunday, Bennett promised that the party would compromise.
“We’ll focus on what can be done instead of fighting all the time about what cannot be done,” he said.
Israeli Arabs play a role
In the background is another potentially historic shift in Israeli politics: the inclusion of an Arab-Israeli party in the coalition. Although Arabs make up some 20 per cent of Israel’s population, an Arab party has never before sat in an Israeli coalition government.
Reports say Ra’am, led by Mansour Abbas, will be a part of the coalition, although it wasn’t immediately clear if the party will join or just offer its votes in support — what’s known as “support from the outside.”
But some Arab-Israelis, who hold voting rights — unlike Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza — such as Zeka Herbawi, say they don’t hold out much hope that things will change without Netanyahu.
“I didn’t see anyone who is adequate and who will do anything to the Arab sector specifically,” she said.