By Arab News
By Osama Al-Sharif*
After four deadlocked general elections in two years and the daunting prospect of a fifth, Israeli politicians are on the verge of forming a coalition government that will bring an end to 12 years of often controversial rule by Benjamin Netanyahu. On Sunday, the head of the ultranationalist Yamina alliance, former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who has been dubbed the kingmaker, announced that he had received the backing of the six elected members of his party to form a coalition government with Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid, who is the one with the presidential mandate, which expires at midnight on Wednesday.
But it is not yet a done deal and alliances may unravel at the 11th hour. On Monday, pressure was mounting on the leaders of the various parties joining the coalition to either withdraw or demand concessions.
Under the tentative rotation agreement, Bennett will become prime minister first, while Lapid will be alternate premier. The government will have a two-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset. To achieve that, Bennett and Lapid agreed to form an alliance with Labor, Yisrael Beiteinu and Meretz — a combination of leftist, centrist and right-wing parties. They also hope to reel in Benny Gantz’s Blue and White and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope parties. But the government will still need the outside backing of the United Arab List, which will support the coalition without becoming part of the government. Constructing such a wide-ranging alliance, let alone maintaining it, will be a challenge. But despite the deep ideological differences there is one common objective: To bring Netanyahu down.
The 71-year-old Likud leader, who had dallied with Bennett when he had the mandate to form a government, on Sunday launched a vehement attack on his potential successor and the new government. Netanyahu accused Bennett of committing “the fraud of the century” and said the new government would be a left-wing one. He warned that he was the only one capable of forming a right-wing government. He asked what message the new government would send to Gaza and Iran.
Israel has had enough of Netanyahu, who has poisoned the country’s politics over the past 12 years, according to his critics and even former allies. The task at hand is to remove him and leave him out in the cold to face possible jail time for crimes he allegedly committed while in office, including receiving bribes and breaching public trust. He is also facing an internal coup within his party as members are now calling for his replacement as leader.
However, the fact that Netanyahu may soon be gone does not bring good news to the Palestinians or the rest of the world. Bennett, the son of immigrants from the US, is a far-right ultranationalist who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and supports gradual annexation and extending Israeli law over more than 60 percent of the West Bank. A former member of the Likud party, Bennett has served as head of the main political body, the Yesha Council, that represents Israeli settlers living on occupied Palestinian land. He was given a number of portfolios in previous Netanyahu governments. His view of the Palestinian citizens of Israel is also not positive. In 2014, the then-minister of economy and religious services released a letter to the members of this community, who make up about 20 percent of the population, warning them against becoming a “fifth column.”
Bennett also advocates increased Jewish control over Al-Haram Al-Sharif in East Jerusalem. In 2014, the self-made tech millionaire told a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations that Israel was attempting to exercise greater control over the Noble Sanctuary, stating that he had already taken measures that would “ultimately influence the eastern side of Jerusalem, and that will include the Temple Mount.”
Still, some analysts believe that, as head of a so-called “government of change,” which will include left-wing and centrist parties, while relying on support in the Knesset from Arab legislators, following through on annexation would be politically unfeasible for Bennett. It is worth noting that his main partner, Lapid — a secularist and former journalist — is more focused on the economic concerns of the Israeli middle class, while also calling for the gradual phasing out of rules that exempt Israel’s ultraorthodox community from military service. He has also previously proposed new measures to limit what he characterized as the disproportionate influence of minority parties, such as the ultraorthodox and West Bank settler parties, in Israeli politics. His program may clash with that of Bennett, who relies on the support of these minority parties.
The most pressing question that Israeli analysts are now asking is how long this coalition might survive before internal ideological differences begin tearing it apart. It is unlikely to complete a full term. But, the longer it lasts, the more difficult it would be for Netanyahu to make a comeback. That, for now, is the rope that keeps all these partners tied together. Most likely, the new coalition will be more like a caretaker government while the country rids itself of Netanyahu’s toxic legacy.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010