Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals on Monday sought to finalise a unity coalition that would unseat the veteran leader, as political commentators predicted a bitter fight ahead.
Centrist opposition chief Yair Lapid won support on Sunday from ultranationalist Naftali Bennett for a “change” government of ideologically disparate rivals.
The deal, in which Bennett would serve first as prime minister under a rotation with Lapid, must be finalised by a deadline of midnight (2200GMT) on Wednesday.
Netanyahu, 71, is the dominant political figure of his generation and his rivals have little in common – except a shared desire to emerge from his shadow and from the unprecedented period of political turmoil which has seen four deadlocked elections in two years.
The morning after Bennett moved against his right-wing rival, political commentary in Israel was divided about everything except the folly of writing Netanyahu off.
“An event took place yesterday whose importance cannot be overstated. A real possibility was created … an alternative government in every sense of the word,” wrote Sima Kadmon in the best-selling Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
But she added: “It’s not over yet. Long days loom in which Netanyahu will do absolutely everything to shift the momentum.”
Hoping to discredit Bennett and other right-wingers who refused to back him, Netanyahu, cast them as committing “the fraud of the century” which would, he said, imperil Israel.
The pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom said in a banner headline that Bennett and Saar were “in service of the left”.
Netanyahu faces other troubles, chiefly a corruption case in which he faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, all of which he denies.
But the veteran Likud Party leader is a survivor: he was first elected prime minister in 1996 and he returned to power in 2009, holding the top office for more than a decade.
He has also kept the door open for any rightists who might defect, maintaining that he is still capable of forming the next government.
Under Israeli law, Bennett and Lapid have until Wednesday to put together a ruling coalition. If they fail, others get a chance. If everyone fails, the country goes to a fifth election.
However a source briefed on the Bennett-Lapid power-sharing talks said there had been “significant progress” toward a final deal, despite their political differences.
“There’s a lot more that unites than separates,” the source said.
Bennett, a former defence minister, and Lapid, a former finance minister, both want to invest in education and health, and to head off any lingering economic malaise arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
However the new coalition will likely mean a stalemate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with marked policy differences between the coalition partners.
Bennett has favoured Israel annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, while his prospective left-leaning allies may argue for ceding territory to the Palestinians.
The source briefed on the talks indicated that Bennett and Lapid had agreed to sidestep the issue: “There’s not going to be annexation, there’s not going to be final-status withdrawals.”
“Final status” is a diplomatic term for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, negotiations on which stalled in 2014.
Israel’s financial markets were mostly unchanged on Monday with the shekel holding steady at a rate of 3.25 per dollar.
Once a coalition is formed, investors will expect passage of a 2021 state budget. Because of the two-year political stalemate, Israel is using a pro-rated version of the 2019 budget, which was approved in mid-2018.
March 23, 2021 – Israel holds its fourth inconclusive election in two years. As in every previous vote, no party won a majority in the 120-seat parliament. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud emerges as the biggest party.
Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) comes second. Bennett’s Yamina (Rightwards) party wins just six seats, but he emerges as kingmaker.
April 6 – President Reuven Rivlin gives Netanyahu 28 days to form a new government. He woos smaller right-wing and religious parties, including Yamina, but fails.
May 5 – Rivlin turns to Lapid , who tries to form a “government of change” from an unlikely coalition of right-wing, centrist and leftist parties.
Such a coalition would be fragile and require outside backing by Arab members of Israel‘s parliament, who oppose much of the right-wing agenda of some in the group.
May 10 – Fighting erupts between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and unrest breaks out in many mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel. Coalition talks break down.
May 21 – Ceasefire declared. Coalition talks resume.
May 30 – Bennett announces he will join centrist rivals to unseat Netanyahu.
June 2 – Deadline for Lapid to announce whether he has formed a majority coalition.
If he fails, the president turns it over to anyone in the Knesset, Israel‘s parliament. This could include Netanyahu, even though he has already had a shot.
June 23 – If no nominee is chosen within 21 days, or if the nominee does not form a government, parliament automatically dissolves and a fifth election is held, probably in the autumn.