Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s days in office may be numbered, as opposition leaders on Sunday said they had the votes to form a coalition government and effectively oust him.
Naftali Bennett, head of the religious right-wing Yamina Party, announced on Sunday evening that he had reached an agreement with centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid to enter a coalition with Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party. Lapid informed Israeli president Reuven Rivlin on Monday of his ability to form a government, and he will now have to finalize deals with the other members of his broad coalition and win a confidence vote in the Knesset.
Under the deal, Bennett and Lapid will rotate the prime ministry, with Bennett taking the role for the first two years. It’s an exceptionally good deal for the 49-year-old ex-army commando and tech entrepreneur, whose small party only won seven Knesset seats in March’s national elections. But because neither Netanyahu nor Lapid could form a governing coalition without those seven seats, Bennett became the kingmaker.
Bennett and Lapid had appeared on the verge of this deal weeks ago, but when war broke out between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and ethno-religious violence flared in Jerusalem and Israeli cities, Bennett called off those talks, saying at the time that he could not join a unity government that also included the United Arab List, an Islamist party, while Israel was at war with Hamas. The cease-fire brokered by Egypt on May 21 gave Bennett some breathing room.
Even now, the coalition is not a done deal: Lapid must secure his full coalition by Wednesday, when his mandate for forming a government runs out, and win the confidence vote. The unity government, dubbed the “change coalition,” is perhaps the oddest combination of parties in Israel’s history. It includes Yamina, Yisrael Beitenu, and New Hope, three right-wing parties led by Netanyahu’s former allies and cabinet ministers, as well as centrist and left-wing parties.
The UAL is expected to provide informal support in the Knesset but not join the government directly — an arrangement likely influenced by Bennett’s earlier reluctance. Netanyahu had also courted the UAL as part of his own attempt to form a government in the spring, but his far-right allies could not countenance governing alongside an Arab party.
Bennett, for his part, opposes Palestinian statehood, supports settlements in the West Bank, and favors annexing large parts of the occupied territory. He and Yamina are much closer ideologically to the prime minister’s Likud Party than to the moderate Yesh Atid, and Bennett made clear on Sunday that he will not moderate his positions as leader of a unity government.
“This government will not do disengagement nor will it hand over territories, nor will it be afraid to launch a military operation if required,” Bennett said. He explained that it would be easier to stay in “familiar territory” and join a right-wing coalition with Likud and its allies, but it was clear to him that Netanyahu was unable to form a government, and he did not want to put Israel through a fifth round of elections in two years.
Netanyahu responded with palpable rage to Bennett’s announcement on Sunday, calling it “the deception of the century” and accusing his former protégé of defrauding voters in a self-serving effort to become prime minister at all costs. The incumbent had made a last-ditch effort earlier on Sunday to coax Bennett and New Hope leader Gideon Saar into a right-wing government by offering to rotate the prime ministry among the three of them. Now, his only remaining move is to try to undermine Lapid’s coalition by peeling off individual right-wing lawmakers. Lapid appears to have 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset backing his prospective government, so Netanyahu could scuttle it with as little as one defection.
It’s never been wise to underestimate Netanyahu, and the task is hardly impossible, but if anything unites this unlikely coalition, it is a desire for him not to be prime minister anymore. Netanyahu is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, having served 15 years in office: from 1996-1999 and then continuously since 2009. He is also under indictment for corruption. The “government of change” is billed as such for a reason: It promises a fresh start with a new prime minister who isn’t dragging 25 years of political baggage behind him.
Even if he is ultimately defeated, Netanyahu is not expected to go gentle into that good night. He will not resign his Knesset seat, but will, instead, continue to try to break up Lapid’s coalition from across the aisle. If and when the new government collapses, he may vie for the prime ministry again, provided he is not in jail by that time.
In any case, his legacy will color Israeli politics for many years to come. Over the past decade, he has presided over the collapse of the center-left Labor Party, once the chief rival of Likud, and the dismantling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He has shifted the entire political landscape dramatically to the right. Once-radical right-wing ideas like West Bank annexation and overt, formalized discrimination against Arab Israelis are now well within Israel’s Overton window, while bedrock principles of the peace process, like abandoning some West Bank settlements or establishing Jerusalem as the capital of two states, are outside it. A two-state solution became increasingly unachievable with each passing year.
Indeed, the inherent fragility of the change coalition is a testament to Netanyahu’s enduring mark on Israel. While Netanyahu has attempted to paint Lapid’s coalition as some kind of left-wing conspiracy against Israel’s national security, it would in fact be a center-right government with a smattering of left-liberal support, and it would not pursue a shockingly progressive policy agenda. Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party nominally supports a two-state solution, but several of its coalition partners don’t, and a prospective Prime Minister Bennett is not about to extend a hand of peace to the Palestinians. Indeed, Bennett’s remarks Sunday suggested that his party’s participation was conditioned on the new government not pursuing a peace settlement at the expense of Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
In some respects, in fact, a post-Netanyahu government may be more hawkish than his own: While the outside world has denounced Netanyahu’s actions in Gaza as too heavy-handed, many of his domestic critics are upset that he did not crack down even harder on Hamas, civilian casualties be damned. Some of those critics may soon be in key cabinet roles, making decisions about the next war.
Netanyahu has desperately clung to power these past two years, through election after inconclusive election, partly as a way to dodge his legal troubles. But he also exemplifies the paranoid authoritarianism of a man who has been in power for too long; he really seems to believe that he alone can lead Israel. Perhaps he should take some comfort in knowing that he won the long game, fundamentally reshaping the country in his image. Whatever the post-Netanyahu era ends up looking like, there is simply no going back to the way things were before.