Netanyahu rivals seek to join forces in a potent threat to the Israeli leader’s power
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, on Sunday was confronted by possibly the most serious challenge yet to his rule as rivals moved to join forces to try to dislodge him from office.
The newly galvanized drive by Netanyahu’s opponents to push him from power could still falter, but the power play orchestrated by Naftali Bennett, the head of a small ultra-nationalist party, marked a perilous new juncture for the 71-year-old prime minister.
In keeping with the Shakespearean tone that often characterizes Israeli political maneuverings, Bennett, who heads the hard-line Yamina party, was a onetime aide and ally of the prime minister. Ideologically, he and Netanyahu remain similar in their outlook.
In a televised address Sunday, Bennett invited centrist opposition figure Yair Lapid to join forces in an attempt to form a governing coalition — a move that, if successful, would break the two-year political deadlock that has enabled Netanyahu to cling to power even while contesting corruption charges against him in court.
Dozens of office-seekers have been killed in run-up to June 6 elections. Hundreds more have been threatened.
The two challengers make for an oddball alliance: Lapid, 57, is a secular Jew and former television personality, while Bennett, 49, has been a standard-bearer for the Jewish settlement movement and has aligned himself with devoutly religious political groupings.
Netanyahu swiftly signaled that he would not go down without a fight. In his own televised statement, the blunt-speaking prime minister called the prospective coalition a “danger to the security of Israel” — a clear bid to remind compatriots that Israel had just emerged from a military confrontation with Hamas, the Palestinian militant movement that rules the Gaza Strip.
Traditionally, Israelis rally behind leaders in wartime, and Netanyahu cultivates an image as a staunch guardian of Israel’s security. The 11-day battle between Israel and Hamas ended with a cease-fire May 21.
Bennett invited “my friend Yair Lapid” — Netanyahu’s principal rival — to work toward a deal under which the two would take turns serving two-year terms as prime minister. In order for this plan to work, they would need to meet a Wednesday night deadline to secure commitments from enough other partners to achieve a majority in the Knesset, or parliament.
Bennett and Lapid had been in talks to do just that before the fighting with Hamas broke out May 10, but the armed confrontation between Israel and Hamas derailed their coalition-building efforts — at least temporarily.
“Together we can save the country from a tailspin and return Israel to its course,” Bennett said in his address.
Israel has been in a state of political paralysis after holding four inconclusive national ballots since 2019. Many Israelis have expressed disillusionment and dread over the prospect of a fifth election if Netanyahu’s rivals are unable to cobble together a governing coalition.
The so-called “unity” government sought by Bennett would draw together disparate political groupings, which would make the coalition a fragile one, vulnerable to collapse if even a single party pulled out.
Netanyahu — who first took power in the mid-1990s before experiencing a defeat and then rallying again to seize the leadership post he has held for the last 12 years — has dominated the Israeli political landscape for decades, a powerful force even when exiled from the top post.
For four years, he enjoyed the patronage of President Trump, who gave Washington’s blessing as Netanyahu instituted policies meant to punish Palestinians and diminish the likelihood of the Palestinians achieving statehood alongside Israel.
Netanyahu, in his televised statement, accused Bennett of betraying the aims of Israel’s political right wing, and derided the prospective coalition as an attempt to establish a “leftist government” that would pose a threat to Israel’s future.
Bennett advocates annexing the West Bank, a move that could make Palestinian statehood a practical impossibility, which puts his views in close alignment with Netanyahu’s. At the same time, Bennett has sought to capitalize on Israeli public frustration with the lengthy political deadlock.
The ongoing criminal case against Netanyahu has given him a powerful incentive to remain in office while he fights the charges of fraud and bribery. New elections could offer him the hope of securing parliamentary immunity from prosecution — and give him a highly visible platform from which to attack police and prosecutors.
If the Bennett-Lapid alliance comes to fruition, a weakened Netanyahu could face a rebellion from within the ranks of his rightist Likud party, which could deprive him of even the ability to serve as the leader of the opposition in parliament.
Forming a government requires a 61-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset. No one party has been able to come anywhere near that tally in the four previous elections, meaning that the politician aspiring to leadership must secure the backing of smaller parties.
Even with Bennett’s dramatic overture, Lapid’s ability to assemble a coalition is still not a done deal. The list of prospective partners he has put together includes traditional sworn political enemies — left-wing parties that aim to make peace with the Palestinians, and hard-right parties that spurn any concession by Israel.
The fighting that erupted between Israel and Hamas initially appeared to bolster Netanyahu’s political prospects, but many Israelis have taken a sour view of the battle’s outcome. Many believe the conflict hurt Israel’s standing in the world without inflicting sufficient damage on Hamas’ command-and-control structure.
The fighting killed more than 260 Palestinians, nearly a quarter of them children, and left 12 people dead on the Israeli side.
Before Israel and Hamas began trading rounds of aerial bombardment and rockets, Lapid and Bennett had appeared close to a deal, but Bennett pulled back once the fighting began.
So divided a government would be expected to take little action that would affect Israel’s relations with Palestinians, instead turning its attention to largely domestic matters such as infrastructure and the economy. Bennett essentially acknowledged that, saying: “We will focus on what can be done instead of fighting all day over what is impossible.”
The next step by the Lapid-Bennett camp would be formally presenting a coalition agreement to President Reuven Rivlin. Then it would face a parliamentary vote of confidence.
Netanyahu has presided over a period of growing divisions not only with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but with Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about a fifth of the population. In 2018, his party pushed through a so-called nation-state law that formally gave primacy to Israeli Jews.
The prime minister’s critics say his battle against corruption charges has done serious damage to Israeli democracy and the rule of law, with Netanyahu repeatedly calling the investigation of him a witch hunt and his prosecution illegitimate.
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