The coalition’s partners agree on little other than ousting Netanyahu. Can it hold?

The parties range from right to left, and they are at odds on fundamental issues. But agreeing on restoring democratic norms could be the glue they need, at least for a while.,

LiveUpdated June 13, 2021, 11:49 a.m. ETJune 13, 2021, 11:49 a.m. ET

The Knesset is expected to approve a new government and replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after days of heavy pressure his supporters.

Israel's Parliament will hold a vote of confidence on a new government on Sunday that would topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.
Israel’s Parliament will hold a vote of confidence on a new government on Sunday that would topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The political fate of Israel’s longest serving leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is set to be decided on Sunday afternoon, when Parliament will hold a vote of confidence in a new government that would topple Mr. Netanyahu from power for the first time in 12 years.

Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents hope that the vote, if it passes, will ease a political stalemate that has produced four elections since 2019 and left Israel without a state budget for more than a year. It will also end, at least for now, the dominance of a politician who has shaped 21st-century Israel more than any other, shifted its politics to the right and overseen the fizzling of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Mr. Netanyahu is set to be replaced by his former chief of staff and now political rival, Naftali Bennett. A former high-tech entrepreneur and settler leader, Mr. Bennett opposes a Palestinian state and believes Israel should annex much of the occupied West Bank.

If confirmed by Parliament, Mr. Bennett would lead an ideologically diffuse coalition that is united only by its antipathy toward Mr. Netanyahu. The bloc ranges from the far left to the hard right and includes — for the first time in Israeli history — an independent Arab party.

If it holds, the coalition will control just 61 of Parliament’s 120 seats, and its fragility has prompted many commentators to wonder whether it can last a full term. Should it hold until 2023, Mr. Bennett will be replaced as prime minister by Yair Lapid, a centrist former television host, for the remaining two years of the term.

The parliamentary session opened just after 4 p.m. local time. Mr. Bennett spoke first, followed by Mr. Lapid and then Mr. Netanyahu.

Parliament is expected to vote on a new speaker later on Sunday evening — likely to be Mickey Levy, from Mr. Lapid’s centrist party — and finally on the prospective government itself. If the vote passes, the government will be sworn in immediately, formally replacing Mr. Netanyahu’s administration.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during the Knesset session in Jerusalem, on Sunday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during the Knesset session in Jerusalem, on Sunday.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, spent what might be his last minutes in power by defending his record, promising to remain in politics as leader of the opposition, and denouncing his nominated successor, Naftali Bennett.

At a parliamentary debate ahead of a vote of confidence in Mr. Bennett’s government, Mr. Netanyahu gave what felt like a valedictory speech, listing what he perceived to be his accomplishments in office.

He noted his efforts to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power and lauded four diplomatic agreements with Arab countries, completed during his tenure, that upended assumptions that Israel would only shore up relations with the Arab world after it had sealed peace with the Palestinians. He also highlighted several favorable moves by the Trump administration that he championed, including American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the installation of an American Embassy in the city.

“Our successes turned Israel from a fringe state to a leading power,” Mr. Netanyahu said. Then he warned of the harm that he believes a Bennett-led government poses to Israel, and railed against legislation, proposed by the new government, that would limit the ability of prime ministers to remain in office after eight years in power, as he did.

“If we have to be in opposition, we will do this standing tall — until we bring down this dangerous government and return to lead the state,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Mr. Bennett is a former aide to Mr. Netanyahu who is considered even further to his right. A former software entrepreneur and settler leader, Mr. Bennett is a longtime opponent of Palestinian sovereignty.

After months of wavering, Mr. Bennett broke with Mr. Netanyahu late last month, allying with an unlikely alliance of hard-right, centrist, far-left and Arab lawmakers who are united only by a shared dislike of Mr. Netanyahu. Mr. Bennett said it was necessary to form a government of national unity in order to end a political deadlock that has left the country without a budget and forced the country through four inconclusive elections in just two years.

Mr. Netanyahu and his allies have framed that decision as an act of treachery, leading several of them to heckle and disrupt Mr. Bennett during his own speech earlier in the afternoon. By contrast, lawmakers largely kept quiet while Mr. Netanyahu spoke, in a sign of respect.

“The right will not forget Bennett’s deception,” Mr. Netanyahu said during his speech. “You call yourself guardians of the democracy, but you are so fearful of democracy that you are willing to legislate fascist laws so I can’t run.”

He then addressed his supporters.

“I say today: Do not let your spirits fall,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “I will lead you in a daily battle against this bad and dangerous left-wing government, and bring it down. And with the help of God. this will happen faster than you think.”

Betzalel Smotrich, a right-wing Israeli politician, shouting during the Knesset session in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Betzalel Smotrich, a right-wing Israeli politician, shouting during the Knesset session in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Israel’s Parliament broke into pandemonium on Sunday afternoon when allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shouted abuse during a speech by the politician nominated to replace him, Naftali Bennett.

Israel’s 120 lawmakers will hold a vote of confidence in Mr. Bennett’s coalition government later in the afternoon, after hearing speeches from Mr. Bennett, Mr. Netanyahu and other political leaders.

Mr. Bennett, a former aide to the prime minister who later became his rival, began his speech on Sunday afternoon with a conciliatory gesture to Mr. Netanyahu.

“Thank you to the outgoing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for your many years of service, replete with achievements, for the sake of the State of Israel,” Mr. Bennett said. “As prime minister, you acted throughout many years to embolden Israel’s political, security, and economic strength.”

Mr. Bennett added: “Expressing gratitude is a fundamental principle in Judaism. This is the time for the people to say to you: Thank you.”

But he was quickly interrupted and heckled by right-wing opponents. They view Mr. Bennett, a right-wing former settler leader who opposes Palestinian statehood, as a traitor for breaking with Mr. Netanyahu and allying with a coalition that includes leftist and Arab lawmakers.

At least four lawmakers were thrown out of the session by the speaker, Yariv Levin, while a fifth walked out voluntarily.

“You should be embarrassed,” shouted David Amsalem, a lawmaker from Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud.

Despite the frequent interruptions, Mr. Bennett nevertheless continued his speech — and used the heckling to help illustrate why he had made the decision to end Israel’s two-year political deadlock by joining a government of national unity, instead of sticking with Mr. Netanyahu.

“There are points in Jewish history where disagreements got out of control,” he said. “Twice in history we lost our national home exactly because the leaders of that generation were unable to sit together and compromise.”

“I am proud of the ability to sit together with people from different sectors,” he added later. “We stopped the train before the abyss.”

After Mr. Bennett’s speech, his designated deputy, Yair Lapid, a centrist former journalist, unexpectedly renounced his right to make his own full statement. Mr. Lapid stated only that his mother, Shulamit — a renowned author who was born before the state of Israel existed — was ashamed of Mr. Netanyahu and his allies for their lack of statesmanship.

That left the rostrum free for Mr. Netanyahu himself.

After speeches from other political leaders, the 120 members of Parliament will then vote for a new speaker, likely to be Mickey Levy, a centrist lawmaker. Then they will hold a vote of confidence in Mr. Bennett’s government — which would be the first since 2009 not to feature Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Bennett’s coalition is an ideologically diffuse alliance that includes the far-left, the hard-right and a small Arab party, and is united only by a shared desire to force Mr. Netanyahu from office. It was expected to win the vote by only a narrow margin.

To keep the coalition united, Mr. Bennett said on Sunday, it would focus on economic and infrastructure projects instead of controversial issues, such as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on which the coalition’s members do not agree.

“We will sit together and what we agree on we will run forward with, and what we don’t agree on, we will leave aside for now,” Mr. Bennett said.

“The new government aims for practical solutions to the country’s real problems,” he added.

He also promised to maintain Mr. Netanyahu’s stance on American-led efforts to revive an Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, which faces broad opposition in Israel.

“The renewal of the nuclear agreement is a mistake,” he said. “Israel will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and will maintain full freedom of action.”

From left, Yair Lapid, Neftali Bennett and Mr. Abbas agreed to join forces on Wednesday.
From left, Yair Lapid, Neftali Bennett and Mr. Abbas agreed to join forces on Wednesday.Credit…United Arab List, via Reuters

The agreement on a coalition that would oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a dozen years in power and include an independent Arab party in the government for the first time blew up fault lines in Israeli politics and opened a potential new era.

If Parliament backs the eight-party coalition on Sunday, it holds out the tantalizing possibility that Palestinian citizens of Israel, who account for about a fifth of the population, might play a more active role in politics, to unifying effect.

The decision by a small Arab party known by its Hebrew acronym, Raam, to join the government so soon after last month’s violent clashes between Jewish and Arab mobs in Israel last month reflected a growing realization that the marginalization of Arab parties brings only paralysis and repetitive elections. It also suggested a desire among some Palestinian citizens of Israel to exert more political influence.

Fakhira Halloun, an expert in conflict resolution, said: “Usually the dominant discourse is one of perceiving Palestinians inside Israel as an internal enemy. We need to change this perception by not being always in the opposition.”

Certainly, Raam, with four seats in Parliament, will be critical to the survival of what would be a tenuous coalition, even if it will not hold any cabinet posts. The coalition will have to consider the interests of the Palestinian minority in a different way.

Practically, Raam’s leader, Mansour Abbas, is likely to press for increased spending for Arab communities, who lag Israel’s Jewish population in the quality of schools, sports facilities and infrastructure. They also suffer from denial of access to land. Revocation of the so-called Kaminitz Law, which disproportionately penalizes unlicensed construction in Arab communities, has been discussed.

“I do not think that the two-state solution or reconciliation with the Palestinians will be achieved in the coming year or two,” said Jafar Farah, the director of the Mossawa Center, an advocacy group for Arab citizens of Israel. “But I do think that it is an opportunity for the Palestinian community in Israel to become a game changer.”

Naftali Bennett is poised to lead a new -- and shaky -- coalition government.
Naftali Bennett is poised to lead a new — and shaky — coalition government.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

If the Israeli Parliament does approve the new Israeli government coalition — a gravity-defying construction with a right-wing leader and blocs including the left and, for the first time, an independent Arab party — its survival will immediately become its main issue.

Israel’s parliamentary democracy veered in a presidential direction under Mr. Netanyahu. In the end, his increasingly dismissive style had alienated too many people, especially among nominal allies on the right.

An agreement to return to democratic norms may be the underlying glue of an unlikely coalition.

“The parties are disparate, but they share a commitment to reconstitute Israel as a functioning liberal democracy,” said Shlomo Avineri, a prominent political scientist. “In recent years we saw Netanyahu begin to govern in a semi-authoritarian way.”

Success will require constant compromise. “They will not deal with the highly contentious issues between left and right,” said Tamar Hermann, a professor of political science at Israel’s Open University.

In practice, that means a likely concentration on domestic rather than foreign affairs. Israel has not had a budget in nearly two years of political turmoil and repetitive elections. As prime minister, Naftali Bennett, a self-made tech millionaire who is considered to be to the right even of Mr. Netanyahu, is determined to deliver higher standards of living and prosperity to a population weary of such paralysis.

The delicate questions to be deferred or finessed would include any renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians and any major settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Establishing good relations with the Biden administration, a priority, and improving relations with America’s majority liberal Jewish community, another significant goal, will also require centrist restraint.

“Hard core people of the right, we have the evidence, become more centrist in office,” Ms. Hermann said.

Yair Lapid, 57, a leading architect of the coalition, would become prime minister in two years under the deal that made an alternative to Mr. Netanyahu possible — another incentive for him to help make the government work.

Still, it may not. The parties, ranging from Mr. Bennett’s Yamina party on the right to Labor and Meretz on the left, disagree on everything from L.G.B.T.Q. rights to public transport on Shabbat.

Among measures the government has agreed on is legislation that would set a two-term limit for a prime minister and oblige anyone who has led the country for eight years to spend four years out of the Knesset. In effect, this would preclude any Netanyahu redux.

The prospective government will also pursue legislation designed to make changing Israel’s Basic Law — containing much of its fundamental legal framework — more difficult. Mr. Netanyahu, who had been indicted on fraud and other charges, had eyed curtailing the powers of the Supreme Court and securing immunity from prosecution as prime minister.

An election billboard in March in Bnei Brak, Israel.
An election billboard in March in Bnei Brak, Israel.Credit…Oded Balilty/Associated Press

It isn’t just the leadership of the country that will be decided on Sunday afternoon. The confidence vote could ultimately also affect who leads Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.

Mr. Netanyahu has led the party for all but six of the last 28 years — 15 of which he has spent as prime minister. If he loses the vote on Sunday, he intends to continue in the post as leader of the opposition, Aaron Klein, a senior adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, confirmed in a phone interview.

But his rivals may not go along with that.

Once Mr. Netanyahu leaves government office, his authority over rivals for the party leadership will diminish because he can no longer promote party allies to coveted ministerial positions, or demote rivals. That will give greater momentum to internal critics who feel the party could have remained in office had Mr. Netanyahu stepped down from the leadership earlier and allowed a colleague to take over.

Three rival right-wing parties might have joined forces with Likud, giving the party a majority in Parliament, had Mr. Netanyahu not been in charge. The three parties were all led by former Likud members who were either former aides or allies of the prime minister, but who fell out with him personally.

Leadership of the party, which has governed Israel for 32 of the past 44 years, is seen as one of the country’s most prestigious roles.

But to oust Mr. Netanyahu from the party leadership, his rivals would have to defeat him in an internal primary in which the 120,000 Likud members would have the final say. Possible challengers include Yuli Edelstein, the health minister; Nir Barkat, a former mayor of Jerusalem; Israel Katz, the finance minister; and Danny Danon, chairman of Likud’s international branch. Recent polls have suggested that Yossi Cohen, who was until earlier this month the director of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, would be the most popular candidate among Likud members.

In recent days, Israeli news outlets, citing anonymous sources, have written that Mr. Edelstein plans to run against Mr. Netanyahu, a claim Mr. Edelstein has not denied. Mr. Barkat held a rally in Tel Aviv on Thursday, nominally to discuss political policy. But commentators interpreted it as a thinly veiled statement of his leadership ambitions.

The likelihood of a challenge to Mr. Netanyahu depends on how long party colleagues expect the new government to stay in office, said Mr. Danon, who has not yet decided whether he will mount his own leadership bid.

“Within the Likud, people will look at the government to see if it’s functioning or not functioning,” Mr. Danon said. “If the feeling will be that it’s not going to last, I think his position will be stronger. But if they will actually be able to work together and to survive, I think it will be more challenging.”

Yair Lapid helped coax into existence the fragile coalition to replace former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government over months of phone calls and meetings with faction leaders.
Yair Lapid helped coax into existence the fragile coalition to replace former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over months of phone calls and meetings with faction leaders.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

When Yair Lapid was a rising newspaper columnist in the late 1990s, his editor, Ron Maiberg, found him a pleasant but self-centered and often intransigent man who regularly failed to cede ground in an argument.

“He would argue with you to death,” said Mr. Maiberg, then a senior editor at Maariv, a centrist newspaper. “Instead of admitting that Raymond Chandler wrote maybe seven novels and not nine or 10 — he would include the short stories to explain his counting.”

More than two decades later, Mr. Lapid, 57, is a man transformed, colleagues and analysts say. Now a leading centrist politician, he is considered gracious and conciliatory. And it is partly because of that transformation that Israel now stands on the cusp of one of the most significant moments in its recent political history.

On Sunday, Israeli lawmakers will hold a vote of confidence in a government to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving leader. The new coalition is a fragile alliance formed from eight ideologically diffuse parties that are united only by their shared dislike of Mr. Netanyahu. If it holds, it will be largely because Mr. Lapid coaxed the unlikely alliance into existence over months of phone calls and meetings with faction leaders.

To cement the deal, Mr. Lapid has even allowed Naftali Bennett, a right-wing former settler leader who wavered over joining forces with centrists, leftists and Arabs, to go first as prime minister — even though Mr. Bennett’s party won 10 fewer seats than Mr. Lapid’s.

In a compromise, Mr. Lapid will take over as prime minister in 2023. But while Mr. Bennett takes the stage first, he does so only because Mr. Lapid vacated the limelight for him.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men voting in Israel's parliamentary election in March.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men voting in Israel’s parliamentary election in March.Credit…Oded Balilty/Associated Press

The heterogeneous coalition that is seeking to end the 12-year-long tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu augurs a stunning loss of the power that has long been wielded by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Still reeling from the worst effects of the country’s coronavirus pandemic, then a deadly stampede at a religious festival, by Sunday’s end the ultra-Orthodox may have no role in the government. It is one of the most striking shifts, and could lead to a relaxation on some of the strictures on life in Israel.

The ultra-Orthodox are known as Haredim, a Hebrew term for those who tremble before God. Their political representatives have sat in most, though not all, governments of Israel since the late 1970s, when the right-wing Likud party upended decades of political hegemony by the state’s socialist founders.

Mr. Netanyahu forged a tight alliance with the two main Haredi parties, which were critical components in his coalitions.

That alliance had given the Haredi parties what many critics saw as disproportionate power over state policy. Their power was punctuated by the successful Haredi defiance of national pandemic restrictions.

The influence and official privileges of the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 13 percent of the population, have created resentment among mainstream Israelis and alienated many Jews abroad who practice less stringent forms of Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate, the state religious authority, dominates official Jewish marriage, divorce and religious conversions and does not recognize the legitimacy of Reform or Conservative rabbis.

Haredi politicians promote a conservative social agenda that opposes civil marriage, gay rights, and work or public transportation on the Sabbath, often blocking a civil rights agenda held dear by many members of the new coalition. They support an independent education system that focuses on religious studies and largely shuns secular education for boys.

The Haredi parties have also secured generous state funding for their people and institutions, enabling many to engage in extended Torah study and avoid the military service that is compulsory for others.

Haredi rabbis have been sounding the alarm over their political setback since the news of the coalition deal first emerged.

“Fear and vigilance among Haredi Jewry,” declared HaMevaser, a daily paper representing the Hasidic wing of one of the ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism, in a red banner headline last week.

Maigal al-Hawashleh, one of the founders of Al-Ghara village last week.
Maigal al-Hawashleh, one of the founders of Al-Ghara village last week.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

For decades, dozens of Bedouin villages in Israel’s Negev desert have been in limbo. Without the state’s recognition of their communities, they have long suffered from a lack of planning and basic services like running water, sewers, electricity, trash collection and paved roads.

But the Israeli coalition government expected to be sworn in Sunday intends to take significant strides to address the plight of these villages, according to Raam, an Arab party that agreed to join the coalition on a number of conditions, including that more benefits are provided to the Bedouin.

The new government will recognize Khasham Zana and two other villages in the Negev in the first 45 days of its term, Raam said in a statement last week, and it will prepare a plan to deal with other unrecognized villages in the area within its first nine months in power.

Still, such plans are unlikely to bring quick change to the ramshackle communities, said Eli Atzmon, an Israeli expert on the Bedouin, who are part of Israel’s Arab minority. Few of the villages recognized by Israel in recent decades have seen drastic improvements to their livelihoods, he said.

There is also no guarantee that a new initiative to address inequities between the southern Bedouin and other parts of Israeli society will be more successful than previous attempts. In December, the government appeared poised to recognize the village of Khasham Zana and two others, Rukhma and Abda, but the effort stalled because of political infighting.

Some right-wing members of the new government, which includes a diverse set of political parties, have suggested they would not accept efforts to recognize many villages in the Negev. That raises questions about whether the new government will be able to muster enough support to make such moves.

The Bedouin, who say they have lived in the Negev for centuries, were once a seminomadic group. But in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, most were forced out of the desert or fled to other parts of the region.

The Israeli authorities concentrated those who stayed in a smaller area of the desert, and later built meager townships for them. Today there are roughly 280,000 Bedouin in the Negev, about half of them under 18.

A protest against Mr. Netanyahu last year.
A protest against Mr. Netanyahu last year.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After 12 years with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, young Israelis and Palestinians — who can barely remember his predecessor — expressed a wide range of reactions to the possibility of a future without Mr. Netanyahu at the helm.

“Wow,” said Gil Maymon, a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, barely concealing her excitement. “We started to think he would never leave, but now it’s finally happening.”

But Ms. Maymon, 30, expressed some reservations about the politician expected to take Mr. Netanyahu’s place: Naftali Bennett, the leader of the hard-right Yamina party, who strongly supports settlement building.

“Sometimes you don’t get everything you want,” she said.

Young supporters of Mr. Netanyahu, however, said they were not only shocked, but bitter, at the prospect of his exit.

Nathan Moatti, 27, an education student, said he was furious at Mr. Bennett — a former chief of staff to Mr. Netanyahu — for unseating the prime minister. “I feel betrayed,” Mr. Moatti said.

“I very much love and appreciate Netanyahu,” said Mr. Moatti, 27, who lives about 150 feet from the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. “He has transformed our economy, defended us against Iran and stood up for our country around the world.”

The government that is expected to be inaugurated on Sunday is made up of right-wing, left-wing and centrist political parties, as well as the first independent Arab party to join a coalition in Israel’s history.

But many Palestinians in the occupied West Bank said they doubted that a new prime minister would bring dramatic changes in their lives.

“The same system and strategy — the restrictions on movement, the checkpoints and the wall — will stay,” said Bahaa Nairoukh, 30 an accountant in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank. “It’s hard to imagine anything different because occupation is all I’ve known my whole life.”

Mohammed Wawi, an Arab citizen of Israel, also did not expect a transformation. “It’s true he incited against the Arab community,” he said of Mr. Netanyahu, “but Bennett has also made comments against us.”

Mr. Wawi, 29, a physical therapist from Nazareth, said that while the Arab party that joined the rising coalition may be able to extract additional money in the budget for Arab towns, it was unlikely to be able to make changes to the nation-state law — legislation passed in 2018 that formally declared Israel to be the nation-state of Jewish people only.

Some on the right praised Mr. Netanyahu, but said that the only way Israel could overcome its political deadlock, after four elections in two years, was for him to leave office.

“The country got stuck,” said Alon Saperia, 30, an industrial engineer who lives in the long-disputed Golan Heights. “The unfortunate reality is he had to go.”

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