Benjamin Netanyahu is making last-ditch efforts to try to block opposition leader Yair Lapid from forming a new government in Israel. The prime minister's plea to the leader of the New Hope Party, Gideon Sa'ar, to form a tripartite government, in which both will rotate the premiership with the leader of the Yamina Party, Naftali Bennett, has been rejected.
The veteran politician is Israel's longest-serving prime minister. He now faces a real challenge that not only threatens his political future but also exposes him to trial and imprisonment on corruption charges. If sent to prison he would follow in the footsteps of another former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. His future as head of the Likud Party is also at risk.
Negotiations to form a coalition government — no single party has the necessary majority of Knesset seats to form a one-party administration — are ongoing. In the wake of the inconclusive March election, Netanyahu was unable to put a coalition together. The president of Israel, Reuben Rivlin, then assigned the task to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid on 5 May. Less than a week later Netanyahu had stirred up the hornets' nest enough and launched another major offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza in an effort to convince everyone that he and he alone is the strongman that Israel needs at the helm.
However, he was still unable to convince other far-right parties to join him in a coalition, despite them controlling 72 seats in parliament collectively. It is clear, therefore, that the far-right camp is divided. Not only did Sa'ar reject Netanyahu's approaches, but so did his old adversary and one time colleague Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu and the fickle Bennett of Yamina. Aside from the corruption charges facing Netanyahu, there are differences of an ideological-political nature, related to Yisrael Beiteinu's position on the Ultra-Orthodox Haredim Jews in Israel.
The prime minister needed just two extra seats to have the required majority of 61 seats; Bennett would not have been able to resist joining a coalition. However, Netanyahu failed to play the Arab List card, which he had been courting, because that was totally unacceptable to the Religious Zionism bloc The Arab List has been trying to link up with mainly left-wing groups, illustrating the strength of the Palestinian citizens of Israel in the territory occupied in 1948, with all which that entails. Its members in the Knesset could have gained a fair degree of influence in government because of the differences in the right-wing camp. It is worth noting that these parities are closer in their alliances to the Zionist left and centre as long as the only alternative is a right-wing coalition government.
At the moment, the most likely scenario is a "government of change" with Bennett and Lapid rotating the premiership between them, but it still has to be agreed by the Knesset. This would be a severe blow to Netanyahu, both politically and personally. Israeli observers of government and political affairs, though, warn that the matter is far from settled, and it is too early to celebrate Netanyahu's fall. Even if such a government is announced, they say, the road ahead is still long and difficult.
"This odd ship will not reach a safe harbour even after the other coalition agreements are signed," wrote Yossi Verter in Haaretz. "Only on the day that such a government is sworn in, and the last of the Knesset members cast their votes, will we know that Israel has a new government. And this won't happen before Monday next week."
It is noteworthy that the majority available so far to support the Bennett-Lapid "government of change" is 57 Knesset members who can pass the formation in the event that the Arab members abstain from the vote, and 61 members if the United Arab List's four MKs vote for the new government. No official position has been forthcoming from the Joint Arab List (six MKs), while the National Democratic Rally (one MK) has refused to support the proposed coalition. It would take just two MKs to defect at the last minute from any party in favour of Netanyahu to re-shuffle the pack. He would then have the requisite 61 seats in parliament.
In the meantime, Netanyahu is trying to block the formation of the "government of change" using every trick at his disposal. Caution is still the watchword, as the possibility of a fifth General Election in little over two years remains a possibility. That would actually be Netanyahu's preferred option rather than a government headed by Bennett and Lapid.
This article first appeared in Arbaic in Addustour on 2 June 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.