Benjamin Netanyahu is due to be ousted from office on Sunday by a new Israeli government formed with the primary aim of dethroning the country’s longest-serving leader.
A motley grouping of politicians, including former Netanyahu allies turned foes, have set aside bitter differences to put an end to the prime minister’s historic run in power. If successful, it will also break a political stalemate that has seen four snap elections in the country since 2019.
“The political establishment in Israel is embarking on a new path, after two and a half years of irresponsibly drifting from one election to the next, after 12 years in which one person drew all the political oxygen from the room,” wrote Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the country’s leading daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, last week.
Opposition chief Yair Lapid’s new government is set to be voted on in the Knesset on Sunday afternoon, where he hopes to clinch victory with a razor-thin majority of 61 out of 120 seats – barring any last-minute surprises.
Under a power-sharing agreement, Lapid will not be sworn in as prime minister immediately. Instead, far-right politician Naftali Bennett, whose support was seen as vital to the coalition’s success, will become Israel’s leader for a two-year period, after which he will hand over to Lapid for the second half of a four-year term.
Bennett is a religious nationalist and strong advocate for the settler movement in the Palestinian territories.He will lead an unlikely assortment of eight parties, including the anti-occupation and dovish Meretz but also parties led by other hawkish figures on the right, such as the Moldova-born settler Avigdor Lieberman.
Critically, the coalition includes Arab Islamist members of parliament, who joined for the shared aim of dethroning “King Bibi”, as Netanyahu is known. In doing so, the United Arab List, which is made up of Palestinian citizens of Israel, will become the first party from the country’s sizeable Arab minority ever to join a government.
The party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, is seen as a pragmatist and said he had secured guarantees from hard-right coalition partners for greater rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, including on discriminatory housing policies, as well as several billions of pounds for infrastructure in Arab areas.
A coalition deal, finalised on Friday, showed the new government would focus mostly on economic and social issues, such as passing a state budget and building new hospitals, rather than risk an internal fight by trying to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, Bennett will have executive powers as prime minister to further solidify the occupation.
Crucially, agreements suggested the new government could advance legislation that would limit any prime minister to eight years in office, potentially putting paid to Netanyahu’s plans for a future run for office.
In power for a total of 15 years – from 1996 to 1999, and then since 2009 – Netanyahu has been desperately attempting to scupper the deal by his opponents, which could threaten not only his political life but his freedom, too.
The 71-year-old is fighting three corruption cases on fraud, bribery and breach of trust charges, which he denies. If he were to go into the opposition, he might be denied parliamentary immunity.
Netanyahu’s efforts to split the fragile coalition are likely to continue even once it takes power – a move that could lead to another snap election and potentially save his career.
In a week of indignation leading up to the vote, Netanyahu accused Bennett of betraying rightwing voters by joining a coalition of what Netanyahu describes as weak Jewish “leftists” and Arab politicians he paints as a potential fifth column.
Speaking to the local Channel 20 TV station last week, Netanyahu alleged: “They are uprooting the good and replacing it with the bad and dangerous.” He added: “I fear for the destiny of the nation.”
His supporters have held angry rallies outside the homes of lawmakers joining the new government, and several members of the incoming administration have been assigned bodyguards.
Some Israelis have drawn comparisons to the anger that led to the insurrection at the US Capitol in January or, closer to home, incitement before the assassination of former Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin by a far-right nationalist in 1995.
Netanyahu’s Likud party sought to calm mounting fears by stating on Twitter in English: “There is also no question about the peaceful transition of power.”
The new coalition has been broadly supported within the Israeli press. “Never in the history of this country have rightists, leftists, centrists and Arabs agreed to stake out common ground, together in government, in the cause of the greater Israeli good,” wrote David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel.
Among Palestinians, Netanyahu’s departure has been welcomed. But there is little optimism around a government led by Bennett, a former leader of a Jewish settler group in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s political demise will also see the departure of Jewish ultra-Orthodox politicians, who have become deeply entwined in the prime minister’s political bloc.
Coalition chief Lapid, and his foe turned ally Lieberman, are both staunch secularists. They have run election campaigns on reducing the power of ultra-Orthodox factions, who have long maintained expensive state stipends that allow religious communities to study rather than work.
Facing the prospect of losing office along with their patron, ultra-Orthodox politicians have launched tirade after tirade against the new government, warning that it threatens the Jewish state.
“This leftwing government is going to visit a spiritual Holocaust on the Jewish people, right here in the Land of Israel,” United Torah Judaism lawmaker, Meir Porush, said last week.
Another parliamentarian from the same party, Moshe Gafni, focused his ire on Bennett, who, while expected to become Israel’s first Orthodox prime minister, was branded by Gafni as a traitor focused on power.
Gafni called Bennett “wicked” and urged him to remove his kippah skullcap, which is seen as a sign of Jewish devoutness.
“Israel has become debased,” Gafni claimed. “We will shout to heaven and earth over the behaviour of this man who is supposedly a religious man but who was looking for this all along.”