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Israel on edge as politicians wrangle over coalition to oust Netanyahu

Israeli protesters lifted flags and slogans during a demonstration to support Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett for the formation of a government on Monday in Tel Aviv.
Israeli protesters lifted flags and slogans during a demonstration to support Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett for the formation of a government on Monday in Tel Aviv.JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

JERUSALEM — Israel’s political class was locked in frenzied horse trading Monday, as opposition politicians struggled to strike a coalition deal to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in turn was waging a last-ditch effort to cling to power.

The bartering put a spotlight on the fragmentation of the Israeli political system, in which the short-term fate of the Israeli state — nearly paralyzed after four elections in two years, unsettled by a recent war and civil unrest, bruised by the pandemic and constrained by the lack of a state budget — was in the hands of a panoply of small political parties haggling over control of minor government offices like the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

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The granular nature of the discussions belied their dramatic implication: Netanyahu — Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and the man who has shaped contemporary Israel more than any other citizen — has never been so close to losing office. And yet, with just two days remaining for the opposition to secure a deal, his departure is still far from a foregone conclusion.

“It’s not over till it’s over,” said Rachel Azaria, a centrist former lawmaker and author of a recent book about social change in Israel. “There’s a joke now on WhatsApp and Twitter and Facebook: The rest of the world is still stuck in COVID. We’re four tragedies later.”

“We had the war and we had the riots, and we don’t have a budget,” Azaria added. “And people are kind of like: ‘Just find a way to make it work.’”

The door was opened Sunday when Naftali Bennett, an ultranationalist power broker, made an eleventh-hour decision to join forces with an anti-Netanyahu bloc of parties, significantly raising the chances of ousting Netanyahu by a Wednesday night deadline.

Bennett leads a small hard-right party with just seven seats in parliament. But he holds the balance of power, since Netanyahu, whom he once served as chief of staff, cannot be replaced without his support.

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Since an inconclusive general election in March, the fourth since April 2019, Bennett had avoided throwing in his lot with the opposition, whose ideologies range from the far-right to the left — largely because he was wary of joining a government of such ideological diversity.

But Sunday, he announced his willingness to thrash out a coalition deal with the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, declaring that the danger of prolonging the political stasis outweighed the ideological cost of joining a unity government. If they reach an agreement, Bennett would become prime minister until 2023, at which point Lapid, a centrist former television host, would take over.

But the deal was not yet done by Monday night.

Three parties, including Bennett’s, had not formally signed an agreement. Among other last-minute disputes, two parties were wrangling over who would run the agriculture ministry, while a third was still pushing for a place on a pivotal committee that decides judicial appointments, according to a person involved in the negotiations.

And a small Arab Islamist party, Raam, had still yet to declare whether it would support the new coalition — either informally by voting for it during the confirmation vote in parliament, or by formally joining the government itself — and in the process become the first party run by Palestinian citizens of Israel to back a right-leaning Israeli government.

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And Netanyahu’s party, Likud, was still piling pressure onto wavering right-wing opposition lawmakers, calling on them to abandon the anti-Netanyahu bloc and likely force the country to yet another election that might end more favorably for Netanyahu.

An official of New Hope, a small right-wing party that had yet to formally join the coalition bloc, said that its six lawmakers had received a constant barrage of phone calls and messages throughout Monday from Likud members, who were pushing them to abandon negotiations.

Pro-Netanyahu protesters gathered outside the homes of Bennett and his ally Ayelet Shaked, urging them to reverse course. Both were assigned security details by the police amid concerns they might become the target of political violence. And on the airwaves, Likud lawmakers heightened their criticisms of Bennett and Shaked in a last-gasp effort to jolt them away from Lapid.

Miri Regev, a Likud minister, told a broadcaster Monday night: “I still hope we will manage to form a right-wing government and that Bennett, who is the Madoff of Israeli politics, who deceived and lied to his voters, his clients, will come to his senses and come back home.”

The protracted nature of the negotiations is partly rooted in the nature of the Israeli electoral system, which allocates parliamentary seats according to each party’s share of the vote, making it easier for smaller parties to enter parliament, and harder for larger parties to form majority governments.

But it is also down to the divisiveness of Netanyahu himself.

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His decision to remain in office while standing trial for corruption split his supporters. In turn, that division exacerbated the political stalemate that has seen Israel crash through four inconclusive general elections in two years. Neither Netanyahu’s bloc nor his opponents had enough votes to win office outright, allowing Netanyahu to stay in office, mostly as caretaker prime minister, but not completely in power.

Three of the parties likely to form part of the new coalition are led by former allies of Netanyahu, including Bennett.

“It’s almost like a Greek tragedy,” said Azaria, the centrist former lawmaker. “There’s the king, and he loses the faith of everyone that was loyal. He backstabs them, they backstab him.”

Because of the protracted nature of the coalition negotiations, and the ideological differences between its constituent parties, the coalition is not expected to pursue contentious issues such as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or judicial reform. Instead it will likely focus on more straight-ahead policies, such as creating a new state budget, restoring the post-pandemic economy and improving infrastructure.

If the new government is formed, it would be led by a former settler leader, Bennett, who opposes Palestinian statehood and wants to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank. But it would likely contain more supporters of a two-state resolution to the conflict than Netanyahu’s current government.

To remain in office, the government might also need to retain the parliamentary support of Raam, the Arab Islamist party, which is seeking greater rights and resources for Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise about 20% of the population.

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For some, the leftist, centrist and Arab constituents of the putative new alliance would have only a limited effect on Bennett and other right-wing members.

“They’re all fig leaves,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization. “We may see a softer, gentler outward face. But I’m fairly certain that the policies are going to remain the same, if not worse, under Bennett.”

Others were more hopeful that an equilibrium would be maintained. Some said the likely appointment of a center-left minister to oversee the police force might encourage officers to exercise more restraint, following several controversial police actions in recent months that contributed to rising unrest in Jerusalem.

For ultra-Orthodox Israelis, or Haredim, the putative new coalition is troublesome because it would be formed without the involvement of either of the two main Haredi parties, which have participated in most coalition governments this century.

But for others, that was cause for qualified celebration.

Anat Hoffman, a campaigner for a more pluralistic approach to Judaism in Israel, did not expect the coalition to last its full term, nor for it to significantly weaken the control over religious affairs currently exerted by Orthodox rabbis. But she hoped it might create a more tolerant atmosphere that would show “there is more than one way to be Jewish, and more than one way to be an Israeli, and more than one way to be an Israeli patriot.”

“This is a huge thing for us,” said Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a group that advocates religious pluralism. “To have a normal government without, every day, one of the government members coming up with a more extreme sweeping initiative that rocks our whole country.”

Others argued that the new heterogenous political leadership might allow for warmer ties with parts of the Jewish diaspora, and for a reset with the Democratic Party in the United States — two relationships that became strained under Netanyahu.

And the diverse nature of the coalition, though problematic and unworkable in many respects, might also make the government a better reflection of Israeli society, said Ofer Zalzberg, director of the Middle East Program at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.

“It’s a very unique combination of interests and identities,” Zalzberg said. “There have been many places where Israeli society has been perhaps more advanced than Israeli politics has allowed Israel to be. This coalition will allow preexisting societal trends to come to the fore politically.”