Netanyahu plots comeback as Israel's ruling coalition faces crisis

Analysts say political alliance could weather the storm as benefits of office outweigh risk of failure

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, at a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Reuters
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Divisions within Israel's diverse ruling coalition could provide the opportunity for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stage a comeback.

However, embattled Prime Minister Naftali Bennett could still ride out the political crisis because a key coalition ally is expected to remain in government, analysts said.

The coalition — which includes hard-right, pro-settlement politicians from Mr Bennett's Yamina religious-nationalist party, secular liberals from Foreign Minister Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party and Israeli Arabs from Mansour Abbas's United Arab List — recently lost a thin majority in parliament.

While Mr Bennett appears to be poised to fend off this immediate challenge, his long-term prospects are uncertain at a time when the government is deeply divided over major issues.

Israel is facing a wave of stabbings and shootings by lone-wolf Palestinian attackers, and a confrontation with the US looms over the construction of new settlements in the West Bank.

Acting coalition chairman Boaz Toporovsky said the political alliance was in the midst of a “serious crisis” but expressed optimism that it would survive.

“Everyone understands that we are at a crossroads that can bring about, heaven forbid, elections in Israel,” he told Israeli public broadcaster Kan on Monday.

The government took office last June, ending a prolonged deadlock after the country went through four rounds of inconclusive elections in two years.

Racing to head off what would have been another election, Mr Bennett cobbled together a diverse coalition of eight parties with little in common beyond their shared animosity towards Mr Netanyahu.

The government has managed to pass a budget, curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and strengthen relations with both the Biden administration and Israel's Arab allies.

Mr Bennett has also emerged as a surprise mediator in the Russia-Ukraine war, regularly speaking to the leaders of both countries.

Although he has ruled out peace talks with the Palestinians, he has tried to reduce tension by taking steps to improve living conditions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

This cautious approach has repeatedly been tested. One member of his party defected when the government took office, accusing Mr Bennett of abandoning their nationalist ideology.

A second Yamina member followed suit last month, leaving the coalition and opposition equally divided in the 120-seat parliament.

Weeks of Israeli-Palestinian violence, much of it stoked by tension and fighting at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, prompted Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List faction in the coalition, to suspend co-operation.

Mr Abbas has not said whether he will resume co-operation or join the opposition in attempts to topple the coalition this week.

Mr Toporovsky said the political alliance was in “a not-so-simple crisis with Ra’am”, the Hebrew acronym for the United Arab List. He said he understood the party's disappointment with the slow pace of bringing about change for Israel's Arab communities.

A public opinion survey in April by the Israel Democracy Institute found that only 30 per cent of respondents believed the government would survive the year, down from 49 per cent in February.

The think tank polled 751 Israeli Jews and Arabs, and reported a margin of error of 3.65 percentage points.

Netanyahu comeback

Mr Netanyahu is considering plans to introduce a motion this week to dissolve parliament and trigger elections.

Such a move is risky as it would require at least one of the remaining members of the coalition to join him. There is no guarantee that will happen.

If Mr Netanyahu fails, he would not be able to introduce a similar motion for the next six months as a corruption trial against him moves ahead.

A pair of no-confidence motions floated by the opposition on Monday quickly failed. That prompted Mr Bennett and his main coalition partner, Mr Lapid, to release a video together on Twitter saying they had defied the sceptics.

“We are going to continue with victories, to sustain an excellent government in the state of Israel for the citizens of Israel,” Mr Bennett said.

Yohanan Plesner, a former politician who is now president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said he expects the coalition to weather the storm, at least in the short run.

He said that even unhappy coalition members would have much to lose if the country were to head back to the ballot box.

Mr Abbas, for instance, is only beginning to see the huge amounts he secured in the budget on behalf of the impoverished Arab communities he represents.

However, any member of the coalition can now put pressure on the government to back pet projects opposed by other partners.

This week, an Israeli planning committee is expected to approve plans to build about 4,000 homes within what Israel calls "settlement blocs" in the occupied West Bank, despite vociferous opposition from the US and most of the international community.

The project is being pushed by members of Mr Bennett's own party, which draws much of its support from the settler community.

“The next few days will allow us to know whether the coalition is in critical but stable condition or critical but unstable condition,” Mr Plesner said.

“The immediate areas to look at are either the Ra'am party, as a whole or parts of it, or elements from within Yamina.”

Updated: May 10, 2022, 7:22 AM