Benjamin Netanyahu could yet disrupt Israel's government formation

Embattled Israeli leader's tenure could end on Wednesday but analysts say he could still produce a surprise

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to speak to the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem on Sunday. AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to speak to the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem on Sunday. AP

Israel edged towards the end of the 12-year-long era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday as government formation talks continued, but analysts say he could yet disrupt a smooth transition of power.

Hard-line right-wing candidate Naftali Bennett and centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid still face obstacles – not least serious political differences, but they appear serious about reaching a deal to unseat their shared rival.

The pair have until Wednesday to finalise an agreement in which each is expected to serve two years as prime minister in a rotation deal, with Mr Bennett holding the job first.

But some analysts believe the prime minister’s fate is not yet sealed.

Fragmented politics

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said Mr Netanyahu would try to undermine government formation efforts until the end.

Mr Netanyahu’s main strategy, he said, would be to try to appeal to hard-liners in both Mr Bennett’s party and New Hope – another hard-line party led by a former confidant to Mr Netanyahu – to withdraw their support for the coalition.

The defection of just one or two politicians could prevent Mr Lapid from mustering a majority and force another election.

“Anything might happen,” Mr Plesner said. “I would wait for the final vote to go through.”

Even if Mr Lapid and Mr Bennett manage to put together a government, Mr Netanyahu is unlikely to disappear, Mr Plesner said.

He could remain as opposition leader, working to exploit the deep ideological differences among his opponents to cause the coalition to fracture.

“History teaches us it would be unwise to write him off,” he said.

A broad coalition

Mr Bennett's dramatic announcement on Sunday that he was willing to go into a coalition began a chain of events that could push Mr Netanyahu and his dominant Likud party into opposition in the coming week.

But even with the full support of Mr Bennett’s Yamina party, Mr Netanyahu’s opponents would be four seats short of a parliamentary majority of 61 and would have to rely on the support of an Arab party – a rare development in Israeli politics.

The United Arab List, headed by Mansour Abbas, has resumed coalition talks with Mr Lapid after suspending its participation during the Gaza war.

Divisions on the right

Mr Bennett, a former top aide to Mr Netanyahu who has held senior Cabinet posts, shares the prime minister’s hard-line ideology.

He is a former leader of the West Bank settlement movement and heads a small party whose base includes religious and nationalist Jews. Yet he has had a strained and complicated relationship with his one-time mentor due to personal differences.

After the March 23 election ended in deadlock, Mr Bennett said there was no feasible way to form a right-wing government favoured by Mr Netanyahu. He said another election would yield the same results and that it was time to end the cycle.

“A government like this will succeed only if we work together as a group,” he said. Everyone “will need to postpone fulfilling part of their dreams", he said. "We will focus on what can be done, instead of fighting all day on what’s impossible.”

In a televised statement, Mr Netanyahu accused Mr Bennett of betraying the Israeli right and urged nationalist politicians not to join what he called a “leftist government”.

“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.

Despite his electoral dominance, Mr Netanyahu has become a polarising figure since he was indicted on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in late 2019.

Each of the past four elections was seen as a referendum on Mr Netanyahu’s fitness to rule, and each ended in deadlock.

Mr Netanyahu is desperate to stay in power while he is on trial. He has used his office as a stage to rally his base and hit at police, prosecutors and the media.

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. Thirteen parties of various sizes are in the current parliament.

As leader of the largest party, Mr Netanyahu was given the first opportunity by the country’s figurehead president to form a coalition. But he was unable to secure a majority with his traditional religious and nationalist allies.

Mr Netanyahu even attempted to court a small Arab party with a religious leaning but was thwarted by a small ultranationalist party with an anti-Arab agenda.

Arabs make up about 20 per cent of Israel’s population but an Arab party has never before sat in an Israeli coalition government.

After Mr Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, Mr Lapid was given four weeks to build a coalition. He has until Wednesday to complete the task.

While Mr Bennett’s Yamina party controls only seven seats in parliament, he has emerged as a kingmaker of sorts by providing the necessary support to secure a majority. If he is successful, his party would be the smallest to lead an Israeli government.

Mr Lapid already faced a difficult challenge, given the broad range of parties in the anti-Netanyahu bloc that have little in common. They include dovish left-wing parties, a pair of right-wing nationalist parties, including Mr Bennett’s Yamina, and most probably the United Arab List.

But with Wednesday’s deadline looming, negotiations are in high gear.

Mr Lapid has reached coalition deals with three other parties so far. If he finalises a deal with Mr Bennett, the remaining partners are expected to quickly fall into place.

They would then have about a week to present their coalition to Parliament for a formal vote of confidence, allowing it to take office.

Updated: May 31, 2021 03:14 PM

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