The prime minister’s supporters have put heavy pressure on lawmakers to reject the coalition. Its fate will be decided in the coming hours.
Published: 2021-06-13 06:25 am
Israel’s Parliament Will Vote on a Coalition to Replace Benjamin Netanyahu
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Israel’s Parliament will hold a vote of confidence on a new government on Sunday that would topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.Credit...Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The political fate of Israel’s longest serving leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is set to be decided on Sunday afternoon, when Parliament will hold a vote of confidence in a new government that would topple Mr. Netanyahu from power for the first time in 12 years.

Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents hope that the vote, if it passes, will ease a political stalemate that has produced four elections since 2019 and left Israel without a state budget for more than a year. It will also end, at least for now, the dominance of a politician who has shaped 21st-century Israel more than any other, shifted its politics to the right and overseen the fizzling of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Mr. Netanyahu is set to be replaced by his former chief of staff and now political rival, Naftali Bennett. A former high-tech entrepreneur and settler leader, Mr. Bennett opposes a Palestinian state and believes Israel should annex much of the occupied West Bank.

If confirmed by Parliament, Mr. Bennett would lead an ideologically diffuse coalition that is united only by its antipathy toward Mr. Netanyahu. The bloc ranges from the far left to the hard right and includes — for the first time in Israeli history — an independent Arab party.

On Sunday, one hard-right lawmaker was considering whether to resign from his party, but still vote for the coalition. And an Arab lawmaker was debating whether to abstain in the vote.

If it holds, the coalition will control just 61 of Parliament’s 120 seats, and its fragility has prompted many commentators to wonder whether it can last a full term. Should it hold until 2023, Mr. Bennett will be replaced as prime minister by Yair Lapid, a centrist former television host, for the remaining two years of the term.

The parliamentary session to confirm the new government is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. local time. Mr. Bennett is expected to speak first, followed by Mr. Lapid and then Mr. Netanyahu.

Parliament is then expected to vote for a new speaker — likely to be Mickey Levy, from Mr. Lapid’s centrist party — and finally for the government itself. If the vote passes, the government will be sworn in immediately, formally replacing Mr. Netanyahu’s administration.

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An election billboard in March in Bnei Brak, Israel.Credit...Oded Balilty/Associated Press

It isn’t just the leadership of the country that will be decided on Sunday afternoon. The confidence vote could ultimately also affect who leads Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.

Mr. Netanyahu has led the party for all but six of the last 28 years — 15 of which he has spent as prime minister. If he loses the vote on Sunday, he intends to continue in the post as leader of the opposition, Aaron Klein, a senior adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, confirmed in a phone interview.

But his rivals may not go along with that.

Once Mr. Netanyahu leaves government office, his authority over rivals for the party leadership will diminish because he can no longer promote party allies to coveted ministerial positions, or demote rivals. That will give greater momentum to internal critics who feel the party could have remained in office had Mr. Netanyahu stepped down from the leadership earlier and allowed a colleague to take over.

Three rival right-wing parties might have joined forces with Likud, giving the party a majority in Parliament, had Mr. Netanyahu not been in charge. The three parties were all led by former Likud members who were either former aides or allies of the prime minister, but who fell out with him personally.

Leadership of the party, which has governed Israel for 32 of the past 44 years, is seen as one of the country’s most prestigious roles.

But to oust Mr. Netanyahu from the party leadership, his rivals would have to defeat him in an internal primary in which the 120,000 Likud members would have the final say. Possible challengers include Yuli Edelstein, the health minister; Nir Barkat, a former mayor of Jerusalem; Israel Katz, the finance minister; and Danny Danon, chairman of Likud’s international branch. Recent polls have suggested that Yossi Cohen, who was until earlier this month the director of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, would be the most popular candidate among Likud members.

In recent days, Israeli news outlets, citing anonymous sources, have written that Mr. Edelstein plans to run against Mr. Netanyahu, a claim Mr. Edelstein has not denied. Mr. Barkat held a rally in Tel Aviv on Thursday, nominally to discuss political policy. But commentators interpreted it as a thinly veiled statement of his leadership ambitions.

The likelihood of a challenge to Mr. Netanyahu depends on how long party colleagues expect the new government to stay in office, said Mr. Danon, who has not yet decided whether he will mount his own leadership bid.

“Within the Likud, people will look at the government to see if it’s functioning or not functioning,” Mr. Danon said. “If the feeling will be that it’s not going to last, I think his position will be stronger. But if they will actually be able to work together and to survive, I think it will be more challenging.”

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Naftali Bennett is poised to lead a new — and shaky — coalition government.Credit...Dan Balilty for The New York Times

If the Israeli Parliament does approve the new Israeli government coalition — a gravity-defying construction with a right-wing leader and blocs including the left and, for the first time, an independent Arab party — its survival will immediately become its main issue.

Israel’s parliamentary democracy veered in a presidential direction under Mr. Netanyahu. In the end, his increasingly dismissive style had alienated too many people, especially among nominal allies on the right.

An agreement to return to democratic norms may be the underlying glue of an unlikely coalition.

“The parties are disparate, but they share a commitment to reconstitute Israel as a functioning liberal democracy,” said Shlomo Avineri, a prominent political scientist. “In recent years we saw Netanyahu begin to govern in a semi-authoritarian way.”

Success will require constant compromise. “They will not deal with the highly contentious issues between left and right,” said Tamar Hermann, a professor of political science at Israel’s Open University.

In practice, that means a likely concentration on domestic rather than foreign affairs. Israel has not had a budget in nearly two years of political turmoil and repetitive elections. As prime minister, Naftali Bennett, a self-made tech millionaire who is considered to be to the right even of Mr. Netanyahu, is determined to deliver higher standards of living and prosperity to a population weary of such paralysis.

The delicate questions to be deferred or finessed would include any renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians and any major settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Establishing good relations with the Biden administration, a priority, and improving relations with America’s majority liberal Jewish community, another significant goal, will also require centrist restraint.

“Hard core people of the right, we have the evidence, become more centrist in office,” Ms. Hermann said.

Yair Lapid, 57, a leading architect of the coalition, would become prime minister in two years under the deal that made an alternative to Mr. Netanyahu possible — another incentive for him to help make the government work.

Still, it may not. The parties, ranging from Mr. Bennett’s Yamina party on the right to Labor and Meretz on the left, disagree on everything from L.G.B.T.Q. rights to public transport on Shabbat.

Among measures the government has agreed on is legislation that would set a two-term limit for a prime minister and oblige anyone who has led the country for eight years to spend four years out of the Knesset. In effect, this would preclude any Netanyahu redux.

The prospective government will also pursue legislation designed to make changing Israel’s Basic Law — containing much of its fundamental legal framework — more difficult. Mr. Netanyahu, who had been indicted on fraud and other charges, had eyed curtailing the powers of the Supreme Court and securing immunity from prosecution as prime minister.

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Yair Lapid helped coax into existence the fragile coalition to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over months of phone calls and meetings with faction leaders.Credit...Dan Balilty for The New York Times

When Yair Lapid was a rising newspaper columnist in the late 1990s, his editor, Ron Maiberg, found him a pleasant but self-centered and often intransigent man who regularly failed to cede ground in an argument.

“He would argue with you to death,” said Mr. Maiberg, then a senior editor at Maariv, a centrist newspaper. “Instead of admitting that Raymond Chandler wrote maybe seven novels and not nine or 10 — he would include the short stories to explain his counting.”

More than two decades later, Mr. Lapid, 57, is a man transformed, colleagues and analysts say. Now a leading centrist politician, he is considered gracious and conciliatory. And it is partly because of that transformation that Israel now stands on the cusp of one of the most significant moments in its recent political history.

On Sunday, Israeli lawmakers will hold a vote of confidence in a government to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving leader. The new coalition is a fragile alliance formed from eight ideologically diffuse parties that are united only by their shared dislike of Mr. Netanyahu. If it holds, it will be largely because Mr. Lapid coaxed the unlikely alliance into existence over months of phone calls and meetings with faction leaders.

To cement the deal, Mr. Lapid has even allowed Naftali Bennett, a right-wing former settler leader who wavered over joining forces with centrists, leftists and Arabs, to go first as prime minister — even though Mr. Bennett’s party won 10 fewer seats than Mr. Lapid’s.

In a compromise, Mr. Lapid will take over as prime minister in 2023. But while Mr. Bennett takes the stage first, he does so only because Mr. Lapid vacated the limelight for him.

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