Israel Moves Toward Coalition Deal That Could Sideline Netanyahu

Naftali Bennett, an ultranationalist, and Yair Lapid, a centrist, have moved closer to forming a fragile coalition government that would oust the longtime prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.,

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JERUSALEM — The longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, Benjamin Netanyahu, faced the most potent threat yet to his grip on power Sunday after an ultranationalist power-broker, Naftali Bennett, said his party would work with opposition leaders to build an alternative government to force Mr. Netanyahu from office.

If the maneuvering leads to a formal coalition agreement, it would be an uneasy alliance between eight relatively small parties with a diffuse range of ideologies. The prime minister’s post would rotate between two unlikely partners: Mr. Bennett, a former settler leader who rejects the concept of a sovereign Palestinian state and champions the religious right — and Yair Lapid, a former television host who is considered a voice of secular centrists.

“I will work with all my power to form a national unity government together with my friend Yair Lapid,” Mr. Bennett said in a speech Sunday night.

He added, “If we succeed, we will be doing something huge for the state of Israel.”

Mr. Bennett’s announcement came shortly after an armed conflict with Palestinians in Gaza that many thought had improved Mr. Netanyahu’s chances of hanging on to his post.

Because of the profound ideological differences within the emerging coalition, which would include both leftist and far-right members, its leaders have indicated their government would initially avoid pursuing initiatives that could exacerbate their political incompatibility, such as those related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and focus instead on infrastructure and economic policy.

If forced from office, Mr. Netanyahu is unlikely to leave politics. Either way, however, he has left a lasting legacy. He shifted the fulcrum of Israeli politics firmly to the right — Mr. Bennett’s prominence being a prime example — and presided over the dismantling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, all while scoring groundbreaking diplomatic agreements with four Arab states, subverting conventional wisdom about Israeli-Arab relations.

By frequently attacking the judiciary and remaining in office while on trial for corruption, Mr. Netanyahu also stands accused of undermining central tenets of liberal democracy.

And he is not going without a fight: Immediately after Mr. Bennett’s announcement, Mr. Netanyahu responded with a speech of his own, calling on right-wing lawmakers within the opposition alliance to abandon Mr. Bennett for his own right-wing bloc.

“This is not unity, healing or democracy,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “This is an opportunistic government. A government of capitulation, a government of fraud, a government of inertia. A government like this must not be formed.”

Ideological differences between the opposition parties were the main reason Mr. Bennett waited for so long since a general election in March to throw his lot in with Mr. Lapid. He was under pressure from his own party not to break with Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious alliance, a factor he hinted at in his speech on Sunday.

“This is the most complex decision I’ve made in my life, but I am at peace with it,” said Mr. Bennett.

Any agreement reached in the coming days would need to be formally presented to Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, by Wednesday night. It would still then need to be endorsed by a vote in the Knesset, the Hebrew name for the Israeli Parliament.

Under the deal being discussed, Mr. Bennett would lead the government first, probably until the fall of 2023, while Mr. Lapid would most likely serve as foreign minister, according to two people involved in the negotiations. The pair would then swap roles until a new general election in 2025. Mr. Bennett’s party won fewer seats than Mr. Lapid’s in a March election, but he holds significant leverage during the negotiations because no government can be formed without him.

Their government would rely on the support of a small Arab Islamist party, Raam, to give it the 61 seats needed to control the 120-seat Parliament. Raam is not likely to play a formal role in the coalition, but is expected to support the new government at the Knesset confidence vote.

Mr. Netanyahu would remain as caretaker prime minister until the parliamentary vote.

The negotiations for this coalition were almost derailed by the recent conflict with Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip. That made Mr. Bennett leery of forming a government reliant on Raam, which has roots in the same religious stream as the Gaza militants.

If approved, the deal would mark the end of the Netanyahu era — at least for now. Supporters of the proposed coalition hope it could break the deadlock that has stymied government action for more than two years.

Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party, has been in office since 2009, following an earlier stint between 1996 and 1999. His 15 years in power make him Israel’s longest-serving leader; it is one year longer than the combined terms of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion.

ImageBenjamin Netanyahu, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 2009, is Israel's longest-serving prime minister.
Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 2009, is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Near the end of Mr. Netanyahu’s tenure, he secured a major diplomatic prize with a set of eye-catching normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab states. They shattered assumptions that Israel would stabilize its relationship with the Arab world only once it made peace with the Palestinians.

Under Mr. Netanyahu, Israel also scored diplomatic victories with the United States: The Trump administration moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem, closed its consulate for Palestinian affairs, shut down the Palestinian mission in the United States, and took a more combative line against Israel’s enemy Iran.

But the Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapsed under Mr. Netanyahu’s watch, with formal negotiations petering out seven years ago. And tensions with Israel’s Arab minority increased, leading to widespread Arab-Jewish mob violence during the recent conflict.

His government also enacted a law in 2018 that downgraded the status of the Arabic language in Israel and said that only Jews had the right to determine the nature of the Israeli state.

Through an electoral agreement with far-right politicians, which ultimately allowed them to enter Parliament, Mr. Netanyahu also contributed to a rise in far-right influence on public discourse.

And by clinging to power while standing trial on corruption charges, critics said, he undercut the rule of law and undermined democratic norms — all while being unable to give his full attention to governing, distracted as he was by such a serious court case.

Mr. Netanyahu has denied the charges and defended his right to clear his name without leaving office.

The case, and the polarizing effect it has had on the Israeli electorate, played a major role in Israel’s political instability over the past four years.

Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to stay in office divided voters less by political belief than by their attitude toward him. In particular, it split the Israeli right, and made it harder for both Mr. Netanyahu and his opponents to form a working majority.

That led to four inconclusive elections in two years, each of which ended with no faction being big enough to win power alone. The deadlock left the country without a state budget, among other problems.

A desire to avoid a fifth election was a primary reason behind Mr. Bennett’s decision, he said. “It is either a fifth election or a unity government,” he said.

After the first two elections in 2019, Mr. Netanyahu was left in charge as a caretaker prime minister. Following the third vote, in March 2020, he formed a government of national unity with his main rival, Benny Gantz, a shaky deal that collapsed last December when the two factions failed to agree on a state budget.

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Election billboards in Tel Aviv in February 2020. A government of national unity Mr. Netanyahu formed with his rival Benny Gantz, pictured far left, collapsed in December.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

A similar deadlock initially emerged after the most recent election in April. Mr. Rivlin, the president, granted Mr. Netanyahu, whose party finished first, an initial mandate to try to form a governing coalition. But he failed after a far-right group refused to enter a coalition reliant on Raam, which holds the balance of power.

That gave Mr. Lapid — whose centrist party, Yesh Atid, or There Is a Future, came in second — the chance to form a government instead. His efforts were initially stymied by the outbreak of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, which prompted his likely coalition partner, Mr. Bennett, to back out of coalition talks.

But a cease-fire made it easier for the pair to restart negotiations, leading to the move on Sunday.

Mr. Lapid, 57, is a former broadcaster who entered politics in 2012 and served as finance minister under Mr. Netanyahu in 2013.

He was best known for moves to reshape a welfare system that gives money to devout Jewish men who study religious texts instead of seeking paid employment. Subsequent administrations reversed most of Mr. Lapid’s changes.

During the campaign, Mr. Lapid, 57, pledged to preserve checks and balances and to protect the judiciary.

Mr. Bennett, 49, is a former Israeli Army commando and software entrepreneur. He lives in Israel, but once led the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.

Until January, his party was in a formal alliance with Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right leader. Mr. Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood and favors formally annexing large parts of the West Bank.

Isabel Kershner and Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.

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