The far-right Israeli politician Naftali Bennett and opposition leader Yair Lapid have agreed to forge a coalition government that would see Binyamin Netanyahu ousted after 12 years in power.
Mr Bennett, a former settler leader and religious nationalist, announced in a televised address that he had made a pact with Mr Lapid. Mr Lapid has been deep in negotiations to forge a coalition government before a Wednesday deadline, and Mr Bennett was seen as a kingmaker.
"It's my intention to do my utmost in order to form a national unity government along with my friend Yair Lapid, so that, God willing, together we can save the country from a tailspin and return Israel to its course," Mr Bennett said.
Mr Bennett, who wants to annex most of the occupied West Bank, is much closer ideologically to Mr Netanyahu than Mr Lapid, a former TV news anchor popular with the country’s secular middle class. However, the offer could catapult Mr Bennett to high office.
According to local media reports on the deal, the 49-year-old tech millionaire who previously headed the defence and education ministries, would become prime minister for the first two years of a term, with Mr Lapid (57) replacing him for the final two.
If Mr Lapid can get an assortment of other parties to agree in the next three days – which is still not guaranteed – he could inform the country's president, Reuven Rivlin, that he believes he can form a government, which would then go to parliament, the Knesset, for a vote.
The swearing-in of the new government, and with it Mr Netanyahu’s relinquishing of high office, could happen within a week.
Despite vast differences between them, opponents of Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges that he denies, have accused the 71-year-old of divisiveness and prioritising his hold on power above all else. Many have rallied behind the idea of what they call a “government of change”.
“We need a government that will reflect the fact that we don’t hate one another. A government in which left, right and centre will work together to tackle the economic and security challenges we face,” Mr Lapid said last week.
Mr Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party won the most seats in a March election and was given 28 days to build a majority coalition government. He too suggested a similar power-sharing deal with Mr Bennett but it was swiftly rejected. After the deadline passed on May 5th, Mr Lapid was handed a mandate under Israel's electoral system.
Mr Lapid, once a finance minister whose Yesh Atid party came second in the last election, had sped up political consultations in recent days following the two-week Gaza conflict, which froze negotiations.
The self-proclaimed centrist and “security hawk” has sought to forge tricky alliances with parties from across the political spectrum.
He plans to bring together the establishment Labor and anti-occupation Meretz parties with their traditional enemies. They include Mr Bennett but also Avigdor Lieberman, who once suggested that "disloyal" members of the country's Arab minority, who make up about 20 per cent of its population of 9 million, should be beheaded.
The diverse group may require outside backing by Arab members of parliament, including Islamists, who would help Mr Lapid clinch a 61-seat majority and dethrone Mr Netanyahu. However, their ideological differences are too great to be full coalition members, meaning Mr Lapid would probably form a minority government.
With such significant political differences, an anti-Netanyahu coalition could be liable to break apart. To prevent that from happening, it is expected to focus on the economy and the pandemic while avoiding big issues and keeping the status quo for millions of Palestinians living under occupation.
Mossi Raz, a Meretz parliamentarian, told Israel public radio that the proposed the government “will do a lot of good things. I’m not sure a peace agreement will be one of them”.
If the deal is successful, it could end both a political deadlock that has brought four snap elections since 2019 and Mr Netanyahu’s 12-year historic stretch as prime minister.
Mr Netanyahu fuelled speculation that his term was about to end on Sunday by offering a last-ditch offer to Mr Bennett and another rightwing party head, Gideon Saar. Under the deal, seen as the most generous to date from Mr Netanyahu, the three men would each "rotate" the role of prime minister. However, Mr Saar, a former Netanyahu protege-turned-opponent, rejected the advance. "Our position and commitment was and remains to change the Netanyahu regime," he tweeted.
Mr Lapid took the role of head of the opposition from Benny Gantz, a former army chief who fought Mr Netanyahu during the past three elections but who lost support after he made a power-sharing deal with the prime minister that ultimately collapsed.
If Mr Lapid fails to announce a government by Wednesday, a fifth Israeli election later this year is a possible outcome. – Guardian