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For the first time in years, Netanyahu’s rule in Israel is under real threat

Campaign billboards showing Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid in Israel
Election campaign billboards showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and opposition party leader Yair Lapid in Ramat Gan, Israel.
(Oded Balilty / Associated Press)

For the past 12 years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics, vanquishing a stream of challengers as he maintained his tight grip on power.

But after a bruising two-year cycle of political deadlock, Netanyahu is facing the toughest challenge of his record-setting rule and could soon find himself pushed into the opposition.

Israel’s president said Wednesday that he has given opposition leader Yair Lapid the task of trying to form a new coalition government. President Reuven Rivlin made the announcement after Netanyahu failed to meet a deadline for forming a government himself.

Lapid, who was once Netanyahu’s governing partner but has morphed into a formidable nemesis, now has 28 days to cobble together a majority coalition in parliament with a range of parties that have little in common.

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While he faces a difficult task — and Netanyahu is expected to do everything possible to undermine him — Lapid expressed optimism that he could make history by ending the rule of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Netanyahu has held the post for a total of 15 years, though his standing has been weakened in recent years after being charged in a series of corruption scandals.

Lapid, 57, vowed to form a broad unity government as soon as possible to end the deadlock and heal a divided nation.

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“We need a government that will reflect the fact that we don’t hate one another,” he said. “A government in which left, right and center will work together to tackle the economic and security challenges we face. A government that will show that our differences are a source of strength, not weakness.”

Lapid, whose late father was a Cabinet minister, entered parliament in 2013 after a successful career as a newspaper columnist, TV anchor and author. His new Yesh Atid party ran a successful rookie campaign, landing Lapid the powerful post of finance minister.

But he and Netanyahu did not get along, and the coalition quickly crumbled. Yesh Atid has been in the opposition since the 2015 elections. The centrist party is popular with secular, middle-class voters, has been critical of Netanyahu’s close ties to ultra-Orthodox parties and has led calls for the prime minister to step down while on trial for corruption.

Israel’s president, whose duties are mostly ceremonial, is responsible after each election for choosing the party leader he believes has the best chance of cobbling together a majority coalition in parliament.

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Rivlin last month gave Netanyahu, whose Likud is the largest individual party, the first chance. But Netanyahu was unable to secure the support of the required 61-seat majority in parliament despite repeated meetings with his rivals and unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party.

In consultations with Rivlin on Wednesday, parties holding a total of 56 seats recommended giving Lapid an opportunity. While still short of a majority, Lapid appears to have a reasonable chance of working out a deal. That will require agreements among seven small and midsize parties, and possibly the outside support of an Arab party. An Arab party has never before been a member of an Israeli governing coalition.

Any agreement will need the support of Yamina, a nationalist party popular with religious voters and Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. Lapid has already offered Yamina’s leader, Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu aide-turned-rival, a deal sharing the job of prime minister on rotation. Under the proposal, Bennett would get the post first.

Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Israel’s Hebrew University, said it looked as if Lapid and Bennett might be able to work out a deal. She said the prospect of having to give up his official residence in Jerusalem would be a “painful process” for Netanyahu, who would do everything possible to trip up his opponents.

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“The main [goal] of Netanyahu over the next few days is to dismantle this emergency coalition government,” she said.

In a brief televised statement, Netanyahu lashed out at Bennett, accusing him of abandoning the religious, nationalist right wing and being blinded by ambition.

“This will be a dangerous left-wing government, with a fatal combination of lack of direction, lack of ability and lack of responsibility,” Netanyahu said.

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Over the years, Netanyahu has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, alienating a long list of former allies during his lengthy tenure. Three parties in the March election were led by former top aides who fell out with him.

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The past four elections were all seen as referendums on Netanyahu’s polarizing rule and fitness for office as his legal troubles deepened. All of them ended in deadlock, with neither Netanyahu nor his opponents able to muster a majority.

Netanyahu has been desperate to remain in office for the duration of his trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He has used his position to lash out at prosecutors, police and journalists and explored the possibility of seeking immunity from prosecution.

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Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist at the Haaretz newspaper and author of a Netanyahu biography, said it was far too early to write off the prime minister.

“Every potential member of this potential [anti-Netanyahu] coalition is going to come under some kind of pressure,” Pfeffer said. Likud activists, for instance, already have staged intimidating demonstrations outside the homes of their rivals.

Even if Lapid prevails, Netanyahu would likely remain at the helm of Likud as opposition leader, Pfeffer said. The party has never before ousted a leader, and Netanyahu remains popular among its rank and file.

Conceding defeat is not part of Netanyahu’s DNA, Pfeffer said. “He will be waiting for this government to trip up and to get back into office.”


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