Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel’s prime minister is down but not yet out

Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel’s prime minister is down but not yet out
Despite the announcement of a coalition government, the immediate political future of Israel remains unclear

With just minutes to spare, Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents announced late Wednesday they had formed a coalition government likely heralding the end of the prime minister’s extraordinary 12-year rule.

The government will be headed up by far-right politician Naftali Bennett and centrist Yair Lapid but has to be approved by a simple majority in a parliamentary vote which will happen within the next week.

While this is the closest Israel has come to unseating Mr Netanyahu, it is still not a done deal, and Israeli’s longest-serving premier has already begun fighting back.

On Twitter, he called the coalition a “dangerous left-wing government” and warned right-wing parliamentarians against it.

He also targeted the historic Arab participation in the coalition: for the first time in Israel’s history a party drawn from the country’s 21 per cent Arab minority – largely Palestinian by heritage, Israeli by citizenship – join the  government.

The comments are the start of a sustained campaign to pressure right-wing members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to renounce the coalition before it is voted in.

On Thursday leaders in Netanyahu’s right- wing party Likud even called on supporters to demonstrate outside the homes of Ayelet Shaked and Nir Orbach, who are in a right-wing party which is in the coalition.

Lapid and his coalition partner Bennett formally informed Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin late Wednesday night that they had come to an agreement.

However, the coalition only has a razor-thin majority,  holding 61  of a total of 120 seats in parliament. The proposed coalition may not be able to hold together in order to name a new parliament speaker, who would then preside over a vote required to confirm the new government.

If the group can’t manage that, the current speaker, who is a Netanyahu ally and a member of his Likud party, could use his position to delay the vote and give Netanyahu more time to sabotage it.

The vote will go ahead and the Bennett-Lapid coalition only needs a simple majority in order to be approved.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett

One day before this vote of confidence Bennett and Lapid will have to publish their formal coalition agreements including details of their rotation deal, where Bennett will be prime minister first followed by Lapid.

There is no guarantee, even at this stage, that Netanyahu will be removed from office.

There is a slim chance that between now and the vote, Netanyahu, who will remain PM of a caretaker government, will succeed in convincing enough MKs (MPs) who have tentatively endorsed the coalition to abandon it.

If he is successful and the fragile propsed coalition government is not voted in, then any member of parliament will have 21 days to try to cobble together enough parliamentarians to endorse another coalition.

If no one succeeds in achieving that, then the country will go to its fifth election in just over two years.

Dr Assaf Shapira, at the Israel Democracy Institute, says there are thorny issues which don’t need to be fully resolved before the vote, but could be used by Netanyahu’s supporters to pick off MKs who are on the fence.

Among the most divisive issues are the relationship between religion and state, as well as the issue of LGBT rights.

There is also a demand from the United Arab List that the agreement includes provisions freezing demolition of homes built without permits in Arab villages as well as granting official status to Bedouin towns in the Negev desert, a stronghold for Islamist support.

That has been tentatively agreed but could again be used to pressure right-wing MKs to defect to Netanyahu’s camp.

There are also appointments to key bodies like Israeli’s judicial committee which have been agreed but could still be a pressure point Netanyahu uses, Dr Shapira added.

United Arab List party leader Mansour Abbas, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, sit together in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel June 2, 2021

If the hodgepodge coalition government is voted in, Naftali Bennett, 49,who heads the ultra-nationalist party Yamina – “Rightwards” – will become the first prime minister in a rotation deal.

The religious, pro-settler, leader won only seven of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the March 23 election but has emerged first as kingmaker, then kingslayer and now king as both sides have vied for his support and his seats.

Bennett was born in Haifa as the son of Jewish American immigrant parents. He started out as a high-tech millionaire before being called up as a reservist in a special forces unit during the 2006 Lebanon War, after which he entered politics.

He has long championed settlements in the occupied West Bank (which are illegal under international law) heading up the Yesha Council, the political representative group for Jewish settlers.

He also worked in Netanyahu’s bureau and was a close ally.

Over the years he has served as economy minister, education minister and minister of defence.

Jason Palman, who worked for Bennett’s office and the office of his coalition partner Gideon Saar said that Bennett “has a very hawkish approach to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” but is liberal on issues like the economy.

He may, however, face cries of betrayal for forming a government with centre-left partners instead of his natural allies on the right.

Yair Lapid will start out as the alternate prime minister for the first two years before then becoming prime minister himself.

He heads up his centre-left party Yesh Atid – “There is a Future” – which came second during the last round of elections with 17 seats.

The former finance minister and TV host campaigned to “bring sanity” back to Israel, a dig at Netanyahu. But the coalition with Bennett will likely be unstable, uniting unlikely allies from across the political spectrum.

Even if is able to form a government, the coalition will remain fragile. It brings together vastly different parties including the centrist Yesh Atid and Blue and White, the right-wing Yamina, Yisrael Beiteinu and New Hope, as well as left-wing Labour and Meretz and a small Islamist party, the United Arab List. Accordingly, they have different opinions on many key issues.

But some experts believe if the coalition gets voted in it can survive.

Dr Shapira said that its diversity could help as the two different blocs will have mutual veto rights over each other, meaning there can be no overtly controversial decisions made by any side.

The potential change of government comes in the weeks after the bloody war with Hamas

Mr Palman says that all sides have made it clear that some divisive issues like taking unilateral actions in the West Bank will have to be shelved for now.

He added that Lapid and Bennet have a long history of operating together politically, particularly during several Netanyahu governments.

“They were called the band of brothers alliance as they worked together to make sure they weren’t left out,” Palman said.

But that would not necessarily mean the end for Netanyahu. He can remain a member of parliament even though he is indicted in three corruption cases. A quarter of the electorate voted for his Likud Party, which remains the largest party with 30 of 120 Knesset seats.

He may even, later on, return to office.