JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents announced on Wednesday that they had reached an agreement to form a new governing coalition, paving the way for the removal of the longtime Israeli leader.
The dramatic announcement by opposition leader Yair Lapid and his main coalition ally, Naftali Bennett, came shortly before the midnight deadline and could lead to Israel’s fifth consecutive election in two years.
“This government will work for all the citizens of Israel who voted for it and those who did not. It will do everything to unite Israeli society,” Lapid said.
The agreement still needs to be approved by the Knesset, or parliament, in a vote due early next week. If it is passed, Lapid and a variety of partners who span Israel’s political spectrum would end Netanyahu’s record-setting but divisive 12-year rule.
Desperate to stay in office while fighting corruption charges, Netanyahu is expected to do everything possible to prevent the new coalition from taking power in the coming days. If he fails, he will be pushed into the opposition.
The deal comes at a difficult time for Israel, which last month fought an 11-day war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, while also facing mob violence between Jews and Arabs in cities across the country . The country is also emerging from a coronavirus crisis that has caused deep economic damage and exposed tensions between the secular majority and the ultra-Orthodox minority.
Under the agreement, Lapid and Bennett would take turns sharing the prime minister’s job. Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally, is to serve the first two years, while Lapid is to serve the final two years – though it is not certain whether their fragile alliance will last that long.
The historic deal also included a smaller Islamist party, the United Arab List, which would make it the first Arab party to be part of a governing coalition.
In the coming days, Netanyahu will continue to pressure hardliners to defect to their religious and nationalist allies and join the emerging coalition. Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, could also use his influence to delay the required parliamentary vote. There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu or Likud.
Lapid called on Levin to call the Knesset for a vote as soon as possible.
Netanyahu has been the most prominent player in Israeli politics over the past three decades – serving as prime minister since 2009 in addition to an earlier term in the late 1990s.
Despite a long list of achievements, including last year’s important diplomatic agreements with four Arab countries, he has become a polarizing figure since being indicted in 2019 on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes.
Each of the last four elections was seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to rule. And each ended in a stalemate with Netanyahu’s supporters falling short of a majority of his secular, Arab and Dosh opponents. A unity government formed last year with his main rival collapsed after just six months.
The new deal requires a reshuffle of Israel’s political group. The three parties are led by staunch allies of Netanyahu, who had personal feuds with them, while the United Arab List made history as a kingmaker, taking advantage of it to shore up the country’s Arab minority.
Party leader Mansoor Abbas said: “This is the first time an Arab party is participating in government formation.” “There are many things in this agreement for the benefit of Arab society and Israeli society in general.”
Concessions obtained by Abbas included agreements for the legal recognition of Bedouin villages in southern Israel, an economic plan to invest 30 billion shekels ($9.2 billion) in Arab towns and cities, and a five-year plan to combat violent crime in Arab communities. was. According to Army Radio.
Lapid, 57, entered parliament in 2013 after a successful career as a newspaper columnist, TV anchor and author. His new Yes Atid party launched a successful rookie campaign, in which Lapid got the powerful post of finance minister.
But he and Netanyahu did not meet, and the alliance quickly broke up. Yash Atid has been in the opposition since the 2015 election. The party is popular with secular, middle-class voters and has criticized Netanyahu’s close ties with ultra-conservative parties and said the prime minister should step down during his trial on corruption charges.
Ultra-Orthodox parties have long used their political power to obtain generous budgets for their religious institutions and exemptions from compulsory military service. Last year’s refusal by many ultra-Orthodox Jews to comply with coronavirus safety restrictions sparked widespread outrage against them.
Bennett, 49, is a former top ally of Netanyahu, whose small Yamina party caters to religious and nationalist hardliners. Bennett was a successful high-tech entrepreneur and leader of the West Bank settler movement before entering politics.
To achieve the required parliamentary majority, Lapid had to bring together eight parties that have little in common.
His allies include Dovish, a pair of left-wing parties that support Palestinian independence, and three hard-line parties that oppose major concessions to Palestinians and support West Bank settlements. Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Blue and White, a centrist party headed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and the United Arab List are the remaining members.
Coalition members hope that their shared animosity towards Netanyahu will provide enough impetus to find some common ground.
“Today, we succeeded. We made history,” said Dovish Labor Party leader Merav Micheli.
Negotiations fizzled out, with Labor and Yamina quarreling over the formation of a parliamentary committee.
Earlier this week, when Bennett said he would engage in coalition talks, he said everyone would have to compromise and give up parts of his dreams.
To form a government, a party leader must win the support of a 61-seat majority in a 120-seat parliament. Since no single party controls the majority on its own, coalitions are usually formed with smaller partners. There are thirteen parties of various sizes in the present Parliament.
As the leader of the largest party, Netanyahu was given the first chance by the country’s premier president to form a coalition. But he was unable to win a majority with his traditional religious and nationalist allies.
After Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, Lapid was given four weeks to form a coalition. That window was about to end at midnight.
Lapid already faced a formidable challenge in bringing together such a disparate group of partners. But then on 10 May war broke out with Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. Fighting stalled coalition talks, along with an explosion of Arab-Jewish mob violence in Israeli cities during the war.
But after a ceasefire on 21 May, negotiations resumed, and Lapid rushed to strike a deal. He reached a breakthrough on Sunday when Bennett agreed to join the opposition coalition.
Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.
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