The far-right Israeli politician Naftali Bennett will be the country’s next prime minister under a proposed power-sharing deal intended to oust Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the opposition has confirmed.
Yair Lapid said in a speech on Monday that his efforts to forge a coalition of ideologically opposed parties could lead to a new government within days, and with it, Netanyahu’s removal from office after 12 years in power.
“We can end this next week,” Lapid said. “In a week the state of Israel can be in a new era with a different prime minister.”
In his speech and for the first time, Lapid referred to Bennett, a far-right religious nationalist and strong advocate for the settler movement in the Palestinian territories, as the “intended prime minister”.
A source in Lapid’s Yesh Atid party confirmed that the deal would lead to Bennett becoming prime minister first, and later handing power to Lapid. The source said an agreement on how they would split a four-year term was not final.
Netanyahu’s political rivals are rushing to cement a deal to oust him before a Wednesday deadline, as the prime minister and Israel’s longest-serving leader scrambles to frustrate their attempts.
The announcement of the Lapid-Bennett partnership, first made on Sunday, was a blow to Netanyahu, not only as Bennett was an erstwhile ally but because his Yamina party’s seven seats in parliament could be critical to helping Lapid form a government, giving Bennett the status of kingmaker.
Negotiations between Yamina and Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, continued until the early hours of Monday and resumed later in the day.
However, further political wrangling is needed for Lapid to form a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. He has already made preliminary deals with several other parties, from the establishment Labor and anti-occupation Meretz parties to Yisrael Beiteinu, a hardline party led by a Moldova-born settler, Avigdor Lieberman.
Lapid said there were “still plenty of obstacles in the way of the formation of the new government”. On Monday, there were competing requests from Lieberman and another opposition party head, Benny Gantz, for control of the agricultural ministry.
Crucially, Lapid is likely to need outside backing from Arab members of parliament, possibly Islamists, who he hopes will set aside ideological differences for the shared aim of dethroning “King Bibi”, as Netanyahu is known.
“The government of change we are trying to form isn’t a compromise. It’s a goal,” Lapid said last week. “It is the thing that Israel needs today like we need air to breathe. We need a government where right, left and centre work together as a way of life.”
While Lapid is a self-proclaimed centrist, he has also described himself as a “security hawk” and provided only tepid encouragement to the prospect of ending the occupation. His fragile and ideologically diverse government would be expected to focus on the economy and the pandemic while avoiding the fate of millions of Palestinians living under Israeli rule.
If Lapid succeeds before midnight on Wednesday, he could inform the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, that he believes he can form a government, which would then go to the Knesset for a vote. The swearing-in of the new government could happen within a week.
If the deal is successful, it could end a political deadlock that has brought four snap elections since 2019 and Netanyahu’s stretch as prime minister.
Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most seats in a March election and was given 28 days to build a majority coalition government but failed to do so. To block Lapid, he has sought to embarrass right-wing politicians such as Bennett, accusing him of abandoning voters.
“A government like this is a danger to the security of Israel, and is also a danger to the future of the state,” Netanyahu said on Sunday of the Lapid-Bennett deal. One member of Bennett’s Yamina party has already refused to join an anti-Netanyahu coalition.
If Lapid fails to announce a government, a fifth Israeli election later this year is a possible outcome.