Israel: Netanyahu could lose office as rivals join hands to form new govt

Jerusalem: Israel could be headed for a break from the “Bibi-regime” as several former allies of longest-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seem to have joined hands with political opponents to form a national-unity government that would not only have political formations from the Left, the Centre and the Right, but may also be supported by an Arab party.

In a dramatic development, a former ally of Netanyahu announced on Sunday that he intends to form a national-unity government to “stop the craziness” of more elections and continued political deadlock to put “Israel back on track”.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the small hardline Yamina party, who in the past served as Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff and as a minister with various portfolios over the years including defence, made it clear that he was going to negotiate a coalition deal with opposition leader Yair Lapid, given that there was no possibility of a right-wing government.’

Getting unseated from premiership at this juncture would be a huge blow for Netanyahu, popularly nicknamed Bibi, as his trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust picks up steam in Jerusalem’s District Court.

The 71-year-old, who has dominated Israeli politics for a generation, has dismissed the charges as a politically motivated witch-hunt, aimed at toppling his premiership.

As Prime Minister, Netanyahu has been accused of assailing the courts, attorneys-general and police investigators, accusing them of bias. As leader of the Opposition, his ability to maneuver court proceedings would wane significantly.

Bennett, whose support base consists primarily of hardliners drawn from religious and nationalist Jews, has for months weighed-in the option of risking his political future by getting into this new alignment or “take responsibility” and lead a government of national-unity.

“At such a crucial moment, responsibility must be taken. Therefore, I am announcing today that I intend to act with all my strength to form a national-unity government together with my friend Yair Lapid so that, God Willing, together we will rescue the country from this tailspin, and we will get Israel back on track, Bennett, 49, said on Sunday.

“Yair and I disagree on a number of issues of substance. But we are partners in our love for the country and willingness to work for the sake of the country,” he asserted, in what was the first clear indication coming from him of having taken a decision after vacillating between options.

Informed sources said that the “path forward is not easy” in getting a coalition of diverse ideologies together but “all the sides look serious in their intent” to end the political deadlock which has seen the country go through an unprecedented four elections in two years and still stares at the possibility of a fifth one if discussions fail.

A government like this will succeed only if we work together as a group. Everyone will need to postpone fulfilling part of their dreams. We will focus on what can be done, instead of fighting all day on what’s impossible, Bennett stressed in his announcement.

Interestingly, almost one-third of the lawmakers supporting the ouster of Netanyahu can be seen as his “natural allies” and are being led by leaders who are “friends turned foes” of the Prime Minister.

“If Netanyahu had acted with a bit more consideration toward his right-wing partners, if he had avoided sinking into bitter disputes with people like Avigdor Lieberman, Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, he could have retained their loyalty.

Netanyahu is now paying for the contempt with which he and his supporters treated all of the above,” a political analyst for daily Ha’aretz commented on Monday.

Bennett and Lapid, a former journalist, have until Wednesday to complete a deal in which each is expected to serve two years as Prime Minister in a rotation deal, with the former holding the job first.

Before the announcement, Israeli media reported that under the proposed terms of the deal, Bennett would replace Netanyahu as prime minister and later give way to Lapid, 57, in a rotation agreement. The arrangement has not been officially confirmed.

President Reuven Rivlin had tasked Lapid with the responsibility of forming a government in 28 days after Netanyahu, who got the first shot as the leader of the largest party, expressed his inability to do so.

Failure to achieve a majority coalition by the Wednesday deadline may lead Rivlin to decide to send the mandate to the Knesset (Parliament) to try and form a government within 21 days, else Israel would be headed towards a fifth general election in less than two-and-a-half years.

On the other hand, a successful coalition deal would put an end to the record-setting tenure of Netanyahu, at least for the time-being, who has led Israel at the helm of affairs uninterrupted since 2009.

He also served as Prime Minister between 1996 and 1999. He surpassed the record of longest serving Prime Minister of the Jewish state set by founding father Ben-Gurion in July of last year.

Netanyahu accused Bennett of betraying the Israeli right wing and urged nationalist politicians not to join what he called a leftist government .

A government like this is a danger to the security of Israel, and is also a danger to the future of the state, he said in a televised statement.

Indicted on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, Netanyahu has been unable to put together a coalition of majority in the 120-member Knesset despite relative political dominance. Each of the past four elections was seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to rule, and each ended in a deadlock