Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
ABIR SULTAN | AFP | Getty Images
Far-right party leader Naftali Bennett threw his decisive support behind a “unity government” in Israel on Sunday to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the end of a political era.
Bennett’s decision, announced in a televised address, could allow opposition leader Yair Lapid to form a coalition of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties and bring Netanyahu his first electoral defeat since 1999.
Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which finished second behind Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud in an inconclusive national vote on March 23, is due on Wednesday for the Israeli president to announce a new government.
Lapid’s chances of success lie largely with Bennett, a former defense chief and high-tech millionaire whose six seats in the 120-member Yamina party’s parliament are enough to give him the status of kingmaker.
Under a planned power-sharing agreement, Bennett would replace Netanyahu, the 71-year-old leader of the Likud party, as prime minister and later give way to the centrist Lapid in a rotation agreement.
“I announce today that I intend to work with all my might to form a unity government with Yesh Atid’s chairman, Yair Lapid,” said Bennett in his speech. “It’s either a fifth election or a unity government.”
In response to Bennett’s announcement on television, Netanyahu accused him of “the betrayal of the century” and cited earlier public promises Bennett made not to partner with Lapid. He said right-wing government was still possible.
Israel has held four elections since April 2019 that ended with no clear winner and Netanyahu and his rivals lacked a parliamentary majority, with the veteran leader remaining in office as head of a transitional government.
The various members of the new future coalition would have little in common other than a desire to end the twelve-year term of Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, who is now on trial on corruption charges, which he denies.
An anti-Netanyahu alliance would be fragile and would require outside support from Arab MPs who oppose much of Bennett’s agenda, which includes more settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and its partial annexation.
It is expected to focus on economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic while ignoring issues on which members disagree, such as the role of religion in society and Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
Netanyahu said such a coalition was a threat to Israel’s security and future.
“What will it do to deter Israel? What will we look like in the eyes of our enemies,” he said. “What are they going to do in Iran and Gaza? What are they going to say in the government halls in Washington?”
When violence broke out between Israel and Gaza fighters on May 10 and Bennett cut off talks, it was reported that an agreement had been reached between Bennett and Lapid. The fighting ended in a truce after 11 days.
A Palestine Liberation Organization official said after Bennett’s speech that the future government would be “extreme right” and no different from the governments led by Netanyahu.
Netanyahu tried to thwart a counter offer by the opposition on Sunday to stand aside for another right-wing politician, Gideon Saar.
According to this, Saar would be prime minister for 15 months, Netanyahu would return for two years and Bennett would then take over the office for the remainder of the reign.
Saar, a former Likud cabinet minister, quickly turned down the offer.
Netanyahu’s rivals have cited its corruption case as the main reason Israel needs a new leader, arguing that it could use a new term to create immunity to protect itself.
If 57-year-old Lapid doesn’t announce a government by Wednesday, a new election is likely after 28 days to form a coalition.