A successful response to the pandemic and a war against Hamas in Gaza have not been enough to guarantee the political survival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
By Monday, Mr. Netanyahu’s options were narrowing as his opponents moved quickly to form a coalition government that would end the 71-year-old’s reign as Israel’s longest-serving leader – and one of its most polarizing politicians – only days after a ceasefire was declared in the 11-day conflict between Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups.
While down, Mr. Netanyahu was not quite out, even though his efforts to forge a new power-sharing deal over the weekend went nowhere. Political observers say he will try to blow a hole in the opposition agreement to oust him, triggering yet another election. His admirers call him a political “magician” who shouldn’t be ruled out of contention.
“It’s still too early to declare that [the] ‘Bibi era’ of Israeli politics has ended,” Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, wrote Monday. “But if change is ultimately achieved, Netanyahu will have been toppled by his colleagues on the right, who had it with his leadership.”
In the past two years, Mr. Netanyahu has led his right-wing Likud party through four inconclusive elections, the last one in March. A fifth election would give him one more, long-shot electoral chance.
But his opponents are determined to send him packing, all the more so since he is fighting three corruption charges that have tarnished his premiership despite his obvious successes, notably a campaign to use high vaccination rates and tight border controls to all but eradicate COVID-19 in Israel.
According to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, Israel has administered first doses to more than 60 per cent of its population and second doses to 57 per cent. On Monday, it recorded one death and just 17 new infections after a steady decline in both figures since January.
Still, Mr. Netanyahu’s career took a blow Sunday night when Naftali Bennett, a former ally and defence minister who now leads the New Right party, said he would join a governing coalition that would end the Prime Minister’s 12-year rule. Mr. Bennett, 49, is joining forces with the centrist Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid, 57, a former journalist who is the Leader of the Opposition.
Their power-sharing agreement would see Mr. Bennett become prime minister, later handing power to Mr. Lapid, according to Israeli media reports. Yesh Atid has 17 seats in the Knesset – the 120-seat parliament – more than double the number of the New Right.
On Monday, Mr. Lapid said the broad-based anti-Netanyahu coalition could come together imminently. “We can end this next week,” he said. “In a week the state of Israel can be in a new era with a different prime minister.”
He referred to Mr. Bennett as the “intended prime minister.”
The “change” coalition, as it’s known, needs 61 seats to form a government. To reach that, it will have to rely on a potentially messy range of left-wing, right-wing and centrist parties – possibly even the United Arab List, (known by its Hebrew acronym, Ra’am), the four-seat Islamist party. The coalition would also have to deal with competing requests for key cabinet positions.
Some of these parties are ideologically opposed to one another. But they seem united in their opposition to Mr. Netanyahu, whom they see as divisive, overdue for retirement, less than proficient in handling the economy and possibly corrupt. He is on trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Witness testimony began in a Jerusalem court in early April.
If Mr. Lapid and Mr. Bennett can convince enough parties to join the new coalition by Wednesday, Mr. Lapid could go to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with the message that he believes he could form a government. If the President agrees, the plan would require a vote in the Knesset.
Mr. Netanyahu has accused Mr. Bennett of carrying out “the fraud of the century” – a reference to his previous promises not to join forces with Mr. Lapid’s party. On Sunday, he offered Mr. Bennett a three-way leadership alliance with him and another right-wing political leader, Gideon Sa’ar. The effort failed.
Palestinians in Gaza, the scene of most of the fighting in the May war, and the West Bank are not expecting any new government to renew the stalled peace process that might lead to a two-state solution.
“The basic ideology towards the Palestinians will not change,” said Honaida Ghanim, the Birzeit University sociologist and director-general of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies, in an interview. “Seventy-two of the 120 seats in the Knesset are occupied by far-right parties. What’s motivating the new coalition is a change in internal right-wing dynamics – nothing else.”
Mr. Bennett is considered an ultranationalist, is opposed to Palestinian statehood and supports the annexation of large swaths of the West Bank. He was once head of the Yesha Council, which represents Israeli settlers living on occupied Palestinian land.
Mr. Lapid’s views are more moderate, but he has called himself a “security hawk,” which suggests he will not press for a quick end to either the West Bank occupation or the Gaza blockade.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.