Benjamin Netanyahu's Reign As Israel's Prime Minister May Soon Be Ending
Negotiations continued Monday in Israel over an unlikely political coalition poised to dethrone the country's longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The attempt to put an end to Netanyahu's rule, publicly announced Sunday night by hard-right party leader Naftali Bennett, has been welcomed by a surprising cross-section of left-wing and right-wing Israelis, as Netanyahu and his allies fight fiercely to keep him in power ahead of a looming Wednesday deadline for a new coalition to be reached.
If lawmakers succeed, Bennett, a one-time Netanyahu aide who now heads Israel's tiny Yamina Party, would take the prime minister's seat as head of a coalition government sharing power with centrist politician Yair Lapid, a former TV news anchor and finance minister whose Yesh Atid is the second largest of Israel's many political parties. The two would take turns as prime minister if the fragile coalition manages to hold for long enough, with Bennett going first.
The coalition would combine parties from across the political spectrum that normally disagree on many political issues but have apparently united on the need to move on from the Netanyahu era. Their success may depend on the culturally conservative Arab party known as the United Arab List or Ra'am, which would be the first Arab-led party to participate in a coalition government in Israel.
Bennett and Lapid have until late Wednesday to secure the support of 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament. Then, parliament would have to vote in favor of the new government within one week. As the hours tick down, Netanyahu and his allies have unleashed an intense pressure campaign, urging fellow conservatives against endorsing Bennett's proposed government.
After Bennett's announcement Sunday night, Netanyahu made a nine-minute appeal to right-wing Israelis, characterizing the budding coalition as a threat to Israel's security and warning lawmakers not to support what he called a "dangerous, leftist government."
"If you are a right-winger, you do not vote for a left-wing government. That is the simple truth," Netanyahu said. "Don't cheat your voters and yourselves."
Bennett, 49, has been a rising star in conservative Israeli politics for nearly ten years. After serving as a special forces commando in the Israeli Defense Forces, he earned millions as a tech entrepreneur in the U.S. before returning to Israel to begin his political career.
He served as Netanyahu's chief of staff for two years before Netanyahu became prime minister and had been an ally in the years since.
Sunday was the first time Bennett broke publicly with his former mentor. His move to partner with Lapid and his centrist Yesh Atid party has angered some supporters of Netanyahu.
"Bennett's ability to lie in front of the cameras without blinking is simply amazing," said religious Jewish nationalist lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, a staunch ally of Netanyahu. "For a month and a half, he has intentionally and actively sabotaged efforts to form a right-wing government, and since then he claims that it is impossible to form one and defects to the left with supporters of terrorism."
Though Bennett's Yamina Party is considered more conservative than Netanyahu's Likud, hundreds of right-wing activists protested as reports about a possible coalition with left-leaning parties filled the Israeli media.
Israeli media reported that Knesset guards decided Sunday to increase security for Bennett ally Ayelet Shaked after 300 people protested outside her home in Tel Aviv, some with signs reading "leftist traitors."
In a statement to his faction released Monday, Lapid called Netanyahu's speech "dangerous and unhinged" and added that he, along with Shaked and Bennett, have faced threats of violence and murder in recent days.
"The fact that someone argues with you doesn't make them an enemy," Lapid said. "A country that is divided and violent won't be able to deal with Iran or with the economy. A leadership that incites us against one another harms our ability to deal with the challenges we face."
While negotiations and chaos unfolded among the political class, everyday Israelis from across the ideological spectrum seemed to welcome the prospect of new leadership after 12 years of Netanyahu.
Sitting at a coffee shop in Jerusalem the morning after Bennett's announcement, friends Roni Shahino, 25, and Shira Lehman, 26, who both described themselves as religious and politically conservative, said they were excited about a Bennett government.
Shahino, a resident of a Jewish settlement near Ramallah, the Palestinian financial capital of the West Bank, was among the 6% of Israelis to vote for Bennett's Yamina in the most recent election. Though Lehman most recently voted for Netanyahu, commonly called "Bibi" in Israel, she said she would support Bennett as well.
"Bibi has experience. Bennett doesn't have experience. Bennett deserves to have a chance to get in to get experience," Lehman said. "And it could be that the change is good, no matter who comes after Bibi."
Rimon Lavi, 77, described his political preferences as "very left" as he emptied his cats' litter box in Jerusalem Monday morning, acknowledged that Bennett and the fragile coalition would be unlikely to shift Israeli politics as far to the left as he would like.
But the simple fact that a right-wing party was willing to form a coalition with groups representing progressive, centrist and Arab voters, he said, already amounted to a revolution in a country where politics have been dominated by a single person for more than a decade.
"I need the change," Lavi said. "[Anyone] who can bring a change in the political situation in Israel is welcome — for a short time."
But for many Palestinians, Bennett — a former settler who once vowed to "do everything in my power to make sure [Palestinians] never get a state" – is viewed, at best, as unlikely to change Israel's stance toward the long-running stalemate.
Another of Israel's Arab political parties, Balad, said in a statement that Bennett had "more right-wing, extremist and racist views than Netanyahu."
"He is definitely a dangerous politician," said Mkhaimar Abu Sada, a Palestinian political scientist based in Gaza. "But his hands will be tied with his coalition partners and [the] U.S. administration, which will not tolerate extreme right-wing policies."
NPR's Daniel Estrin contributed to this report from Israel.
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