Live Updates: Netanyahu Foes Appear Close to Deal as Clock Ticks Down

Parties ranging from the left to the far right, including an Arab bloc, were moving toward sealing a coalition government by midnight in Israel.

LiveUpdated June 2, 2021, 4:16 p.m. ETJune 2, 2021, 4:16 p.m. ET

Parties ranging from the left to the far right, including an Arab bloc, were moving toward sealing a coalition government by midnight in Israel.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listening last year to Naftali Bennett, who was then serving as defense minister. Credit…Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press

Here’s what you need to know:

Right-wing lawmakers face intense pressure to reject the opposition coalition.

Is Naftali Bennett, poised to become prime minister, an ideologue or a pragmatist?

Looking to themselves, Palestinians expect little from Israeli changes.

Would a new government mean a profound shift for Israel?

Isaac Herzog will be Israel’s new president.

Naftali Bennett, left, and Yair Lapid in Parliament on Wednesday. The two would split a term as prime minister if their negotiations succeed.Credit…Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Opposition leaders raced to complete a coalition government ahead of a midnight deadline on Wednesday, trying to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and end a two-year political impasse that has left Israel without a stable government or state budget.

If an agreement is reached in time, and if Parliament ratifies it in a confidence vote in the coming days, that would bring down the curtain — if perhaps only for an intermission — on the premiership of Mr. Netanyahu. He has been the country’s longest-serving prime minister, for 12 years consecutively and 15 years overall, and he has defined contemporary Israel more than any other recent leader.

Failure to make the deadline would make it more likely that Israelis would soon face their fifth national elections in just over two years.

Following weeks of deadlock, a small Arab Islamist party whose support is crucial to any future government, agreed to join the coalition, making it the first Arab party in Israeli history to support a right-leaning political bloc. Half an hour later, a small hard-right party, New Hope, also announced it had joined the bloc.

With less than 60 minutes before the deadline, that left the coalition waiting on just the hard-right Yamina party — whom Israeli news media reported was close to signing up.

If it is formed, the new coalition would be an unusual and awkward alliance between up to eight political parties from a diverse array of ideologies, from the left to the far right, which analysts expect will struggle to last a full term. In a harbinger of tensions to come, talks stalled on Wednesday after a disagreement over whether Ayelet Shaked, a Yamina lawmaker and a proponent of judicial changes that are opposed by the left, would be allowed to join a committee that appoints new judges.

For their part, some leftist and centrist ministers are expected to rile their right-wing coalition partners by focusing on police reform or by blocking settlement expansion.

The coalition’s success hinges on the support of the Arab party, Raam, which only committed to a deal after being given assurances of greater resources and rights for Israel’s Arab minority — policies that potential hard-right coalition partners find problematic.

While some analysts say the putative coalition reflects the breadth and complexity of contemporary Israeli society, others say its members are too incompatible for their compact to last, and consider it the embodiment of Israel’s political dysfunction.

The alliance would be led until 2023 by Yamina’s party chief, Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader and standard-bearer for the religious right, who opposes a Palestinian state and wants Israel to annex the majority of the occupied West Bank. He is a former ally of Mr. Netanyahu often described as more right-wing than the prime minister.

If the government lasts a whole term, it would then be led between 2023 and 2025 by Yair Lapid, a centrist former television host considered a standard-bearer for secular Israelis.

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv in 2019.Credit…Corinna Kern/Reuters

Sitting in her office in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon, Idit Silman, a hard-right lawmaker, flicked through hundreds of recent text messages from unknown numbers.

Some were laced with abusive language. Some warned she was going to hell. All of them demanded that her party abandon coalition negotiations with an alliance of centrist, leftist and right-wing lawmakers seeking to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time in 12 years.

“It’s very hard,” Ms. Silman said. “People would rather put pressure on Idit Silman than see Benjamin Netanyahu leave Balfour Street,” she added, in a reference to the location of the prime minister’s official residence.

As opposition negotiators race to meet a midnight deadline to agree on a new government, supporters of Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party were working overtime to pressure Ms. Silman and other members of the right-wing Yamina party.

Many right-wing Israelis see Yamina’s turn against Mr. Netanyahu as a betrayal.

This onslaught has given Ms. Silman and her colleagues pause for thought — and an incentive to be seen as prolonging the negotiations for as long as possible. Even if Yamina does finally join the coalition on Wednesday night, Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, is likely to continue to play on these fears.

Parliament might not hold a vote of confidence in a new government for another 10 days, giving Mr. Netanyahu more time to persuade Yamina lawmakers to reverse course.

His party has already promised to keep goading Ms. Silman and her colleagues.

“Behind the scenes,” said a senior Likud official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “the Likud party is ramping up the pressure, particularly on the weakest links.”

The pressure has been relentless for days, since the phone numbers of Ms. Silman and her colleagues, they say, were posted on several WhatsApp and Facebook groups. That has prompted a barrage of messages — and not just from Israelis. Evangelical pastors in the United States have weighed in, and so have Hasidic activists in Britain, among many others.

The Likud party denies accusations that it posted any numbers publicly.

When Ms. Silman turned up at her local synagogue last week, she found several slick posters outside, each with her portrait overlaid with the slogan: “Idit Silman stitched together a government with terror supporters.”

For days, protesters have picketed her home, shouted abuse at her children, and trailed her by car in a menacing fashion, she said.

Yamina’s leader, Naftali Bennett, decided to negotiate with the opposition on Sunday night, after months of wavering. His calculus was based on realism, analysts say: Mr. Netanyahu cannot form a coalition, even with Mr. Bennett’s support. So Mr. Bennett can either fall in with the opposition, who have offered him the chance to be prime minister — or force the country to a fifth election in little more than two years.

“We always ask ourselves this question,” Ms. Silman said on Wednesday afternoon. “Is it right? Can we do something else?”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listening last year to Naftali Bennett, who was then serving as defense minister. Credit…Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press

Naftali Bennett, who is poised to become Israel’s next prime minister, is a former high-tech entrepreneur best known for insisting that there must never be a full-fledged Palestinian state and that Israel should annex much of the occupied West Bank.

The independently wealthy son of immigrants from the United States, Mr. Bennett, 49, first entered the Israeli Parliament eight years ago and is relatively unknown and inexperienced on the international stage. That has left much of the world — and many Israelis — wondering what kind of leader he might be.

A former chief of staff to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Bennett is often described as more right-wing than his old boss. Shifting between seemingly contradictory alliances, Mr. Bennett has been called an extremist and an opportunist. Allies say he is merely a pragmatist, less ideological than he appears, and lacking Mr. Netanyahu’s penchant for demonizing opponents.

In a measure of Mr. Bennett’s talents, he has now pulled off a feat that is extraordinary even by the perplexing standards of Israeli politics. He has all but maneuvered himself into the top office even though his party, Yamina, won just seven of the 120 seats in the Parliament.

Mr. Bennett leveraged his modest but pivotal electoral weight after the inconclusive March election, Israel’s fourth in two years. He entered coalition talks as a kingmaker, and appears ready to emerge as the one wearing the crown.

Mr. Bennett has long championed West Bank settlers and once led the council representing them, though he is not a settler, himself. He is religiously observant — he would be the first prime minister to wear a kipa — but he will head a governing coalition that is largely secular.

He would lead a precarious coalition that spans Israel’s fractious political spectrum from left to right, and relies on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party — much of which opposes his ideas on settlement and annexation. That coalition proposes to paper over its differences on Israeli-Palestinian relations by focusing on domestic matters.

Mr. Bennett has explained his motives for teaming up with such ideological opposites as an act of last resort to end the political impasse that has paralyzed Israel.

“The political crisis in Israel is unprecedented on a global level,” he said in a televised speech on Sunday. “We could end up with fifth, sixth, even 10th elections, dismantling the walls of the country, brick by brick, until our house falls in on us. Or we can stop the madness and take responsibility.”

JERUSALEM — For Israelis, the possible downfall of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving leader, is an epochal moment. Israeli media have barraged their audiences with reports and commentary on the opposition attempts to form a government.

But for many Palestinians, the political drama has prompted little more than a shrug and a resurgence of bitter memories.

During Mr. Netanyahu’s current 12-year tenure, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process fizzled, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders accused each other of obstructing the process, and Mr. Netanyahu expressed increasing skepticism about the possibility of a sovereign Palestinian state.

But to many Palestinians, his likely replacement as prime minister, Naftali Bennett, would be no improvement. Mr. Bennett is Mr. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, and a former settler leader who outright rejects Palestinian statehood.

Instead, many Palestinians are consumed by their own political moment, which some activists have framed as the most pivotal in decades.

The Palestinian polity has long been physically and politically fragmented between the American-backed Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank; its archrival, Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza; a Palestinian minority inside Israel whose votes might make or break an Israeli government; and a sprawling diaspora.

But spurred by last month’s 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and the worst bout of intercommunal Arab-Jewish violence to have convulsed Israel in decades, these disparate parts suddenly came together in a seemingly leaderless eruption of shared identity and purpose.

In a rare display of unity, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians observed a general strike on May 12 across Gaza, the West Bank, the refugee camps of Lebanon and inside Israel itself.

“I don’t think whoever is in charge in Israel will make a great deal of difference to the Palestinians,” said Ahmad Aweidah, the former head of the Palestinian stock exchange. “There might be slight differences and nuances, but all mainstream Israeli parties, with slight exceptions on the extreme left, share pretty much the same ideology.”

The strike in mid-May, Mr. Aweidah said, “showed that we are united no matter what the Israelis have tried to do for 73 years: categorizing us into Israeli Arabs, West Bankers, Jerusalemites, Gazans, refugees and diaspora.”

“None of that has worked,” he said. “We are back to square one.”

Mr. Bennett speaking in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit…Pool photo by Yonatan Sindel

Naftali Bennett, who leads a small right-wing party, and Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the Israeli opposition, have joined forces to try to form a diverse coalition to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Spanning Israel’s fractious political spectrum from left to right, and relying on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party, the proposed coalition, dubbed the “change government” by supporters, could signal a profound shift for Israel. Its leaders have pledged to end the cycle of divisive politics and inconclusive elections.

But even if they create the coalition by a midnight deadline and topple Mr. Netanyahu, how much change would their “change government” bring, when some of the parties agree on little else besides antipathy for Israel’s longest-serving leader?

Mr. Bennett, whose party won seven seats in Parliament, is often described as further to the right than Mr. Netanyahu. While Mr. Netanyahu eroded the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Bennett, a religiously observant champion of Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, openly rejects the concept of a sovereign Palestinian state and has advocated annexing West Bank territory.

Still, though the coalition will include several parties that disagree on both those issues, they have agreed to allow Mr. Bennett to become prime minister first.

If the coalition deal holds, Mr. Bennett would be replaced for the second part of the four-year term by Mr. Lapid, who advocates for secular, middle-class Israelis and whose party won 17 seats.

By conceding the first turn in the rotation, Mr. Lapid, who has been branded as a dangerous leftist by his opponents on the right, smoothed the way for other right-wing politicians to join the new anti-Netanyahu alliance.

In a measure of the plot twists and tumult behind this political turnaround, Mr. Bennett had pledged before the election not to enable a Lapid government of any kind or any government reliant on the Islamist party, called Raam.

The coalition would stand or fall on the cooperation between eight parties with disparate ideologies and, on many issues, clashing agendas.

In a televised address on Sunday night, Mr. Bennett said he was committed to fostering national unity.

“Two thousand years ago, there was a Jewish state which fell here because of internal quarrels,” he said. “This will not happen again. Not on my watch.”

Mr. Herzog, left, seen here with Yariv Levin, Speaker of the Knesset, will take over from the current president, Reuven Rivlin, in July.Credit…Pool photo by Ronen Zvulun

Even as the country and its Parliament remained deeply divided over the formation of a new government, Israeli lawmakers came together on Wednesday to elect a new president, Isaac Herzog, a former leader of the Labor party and government minister.

Displaying a rare degree of consensus in a secret ballot, they voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Herzog, who currently serves as the chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, which helps deal with immigration, interacts with the Jewish diaspora and runs social programs.

The president plays a mostly symbolic role as a national unifier in Israel’s fractious parliamentary democracy, where the prime minister wields the most power.

One of a president’s main responsibilities is to grant a candidate the task of forming a government after elections. In Israel’s current, fragmented politics, which have produced four inconclusive elections in two years, that involves more than the usual level of skill, legal interpretation and discretion.

The president can also play an important role in Israeli diplomacy and has the power to pardon convicted criminals and exercise clemency by reducing or commuting sentences.

Mr. Herzog, 60, the grandson of the first chief rabbi of Israel and the son of one of the country’s earlier presidents, Chaim Herzog, will take over from the current president, Reuven Rivlin, in July.

“Our challenges are many and should not be taken lightly,” Mr. Herzog said in his acceptance speech. “I intend to be the president of all Israelis, to lend an attentive ear to every position and respect every person.”

Yair Lapid, the opposition leader.Credit…Gil Cohen-Magen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, has until Wednesday at midnight to inform the president, Reuven Rivlin, that he has managed to assemble a viable coalition. If he makes that announcement, he then has up to seven days to present the government to Parliament for a vote of confidence.

Some disagreements within the fractious coalition were still being ironed out in the run-up to the deadline on Wednesday. And with the fate of the new coalition dependent on a narrow margin and hanging on every single vote, its partners were racing to complete the agreement, knowing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies were on the hunt for potential defectors.

The coalition, ranging from right to left, is united primarily by its opposition to Mr. Netanyahu.

Israel has held four parliamentary elections in two years, all of them inconclusive, leaving it without a stable government or state budget. If the opposition fails to form a government today, it could lead to yet another election.

“There are still plenty of obstacles in the way of the formation of the new government,” Mr. Lapid, the leader of a centrist party, said on Monday. “Maybe that’s a good thing because we’ll have to overcome them together. That’s our first test.”

Mansour Abbas, center, the leader of the Arab party Raam, at a campaign event in February. The new government would rely on Raam’s support to pass a confidence vote and to be able to control the Parliament.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

One of the most unlikely kingmakers involved in the race to announce a new government is Mansour Abbas, the leader of the small Arab party known by its Hebrew acronym, Raam, with four seats in the current Parliament.

Under an 11th-hour agreement, Raam would formally be a part of a Lapid-Bennett coalition government, though it would not hold any Cabinet seats. That was something of a surprise, as the party was expected to remain outside the coalition, while supporting it in a confidence vote in the Parliament. Some Arab lawmakers played a similar role by supporting Yitzhak Rabin’s government from the outside in the 1990s.

For decades, Arab parties have not been directly involved in Israeli governments. They have been mostly shunned by other parties, and are leery of joining a government that oversees occupation of the Palestinian territories and Israel’s military actions.

But after decades of political marginalization, many Palestinian citizens, who make up a fifth of Israel’s population, have been seeking fuller integration.

Raam has been willing to work with both the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps since the March election and to use its leverage to wrest concessions for the Arab public. The party has refused to commit to a deal unless it gets assurances for greater resources and rights for Israel’s Arab minority, including reforms to housing legislation that potential hard-right coalition partners do not accept.

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