It is an alliance that Israel has never seen before: eight very different parties want to work together to end Netanyahu as prime minister. But he remains combative.
The photo is only a few hours old, but some call it “historical”: Jair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader, sits next to Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Yemina party, and Mansour Abbas, the chairman of the Arab-Islamist Ra’am- Political party. The three smile at the camera, visibly satisfied, proud perhaps.
On Wednesday at 11:22 p.m., shortly before the deadline at midnight, they achieved what many had considered unthinkable: the secular Lapid, the religious-nationalist Bennett and the Islamist Abbas have agreed to form a coalition together with five other parties. If they manage to get their government approved by parliament, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to resign. “Netanyahu has achieved the impossible,” wrote Russian world chess champion Garry Kasparov on Twitter. “He united the Islamists and the Zionists!”
The country has never seen such a diverse coalition alliance in its history: it includes nationalist forces such as Bennett and Gideon Saar, head of the right-wing New Hope party, which rejects a Palestinian state, as well as left-wing advocates of a two-state solution and the Islamists of Ra’am . The programs, worldviews and voter profiles of the eight parties could hardly be more different. There is only one goal that unites them all: They want to force Netanyahu, who has to stand trial for suspected corruption, out of office.
Former Likud members against Netanyahu
Kasparov is likely to be right: Without Netanyahu’s countless tricks and feuds to secure his hold on power, these different forces would probably never have come together. Bennett, Saar and Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of the right-wing Israel Beitenu party, all three members of the new coalition, began their political careers in Netanyahu’s Likud party. They worked under his aegis for years until they fell out with him for various reasons.
The Arab politician Mansour Abbas, on the other hand, first made Netanyahu a potential coalition partner. For decades, the Arab parties had not participated in any government, partly for ideological reasons, partly because none of the mainstream parties saw them as a political partner.
Most members of the Arab parties in the Israeli parliament identify with the Palestinians’ struggle for their own state and are anti-Zionist, so they reject the idea of a Jewish state. Abbas, however, has recently taken a pragmatic path and signaled his willingness to even cooperate with right-wing parties in favor of concrete concessions for his clientele.
Change of Mansour Abbas?
Netanyahu, whose right-wing religious camp is currently nine votes short of a majority, then began political negotiations with Abbas. These fizzled out because some religious-nationalist politicians from the Netanyahu camp refused to cooperate with the Ra’am party. But in the eyes of the public, Abbas turned into a potential ally in this way.
“Many things that have now happened to Netanyahu are unintended consequences of his behavior,” commented political scientist Gideon Rahat of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “He’s the main actor, everything revolves around him.”
In order to force Netanyahu out of office, some of his opponents have made enormous compromises. Lapid, for example, the second strongest force with 17 mandates, will initially renounce the office of prime minister. Instead, Bennett, whose party only holds seven seats, should wear it. Only after two years will Lapid, who is to serve as Secretary of State until then, be allowed to take over from Bennett.
Old and new faces in the cabinet
Benny Gantz, chairman of the centrist blue-white alliance, is to remain Minister of Defense. Gideon Saar promises the coalition agreement to the Ministry of Justice. Avigdor Liberman, chairman of the right-wing Israel Beitenu party, is supposed to head the finance ministry, Merav Michaeli, the head of the labor party, the transport ministry.
No cabinet post is planned for Mansour Abbas. But he was able to enforce important demands: Among other things, investments of around 18 billion euros in the Arab sector and the subsequent legalization of three Bedouin villages in the Negev desert that had been built without permits. It is the first time in the country’s history that an independent Arab party has joined a coalition. “The decision was difficult and there were several points of contention, but it was important to find an agreement,” Abbas said afterwards.
Not all hurdles cleared
The alliance still has to overcome several hurdles on its way to power. A majority of at least 61 MPs must vote for the coalition by June 14th. The election could be extremely close: Together, the eight allies will have 62 seats, but a member of the Yemina party has already announced that he will vote against the coalition. Another indicated doubt on Wednesday.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Israeli parliament: The prime minister has not yet given up the fight for his post. (Source: Yonatan Sindel / dpa)
If the coalition fails to gain a majority, the mandate to form a government would pass to the Knesset. Any MP could then try to set up a coalition. If this attempt were also unsuccessful, new elections would be scheduled – for the fifth time in two and a half years.
Netanyahu is combative
Netanyahu and his colleagues are likely to speculate on it. They are already attacking the unusual alliance harshly, calling it a “dangerous left government”, despite the fact that the left forces are in the minority in it.
If the new government were sworn in and Netanyahu might withdraw from politics, the new alliance could collapse quickly, believes the political scientist Rahat – because then the right-wing parties, which together have a clear majority in parliament, would no longer have anything to do with a joint coalition in the way. Ironically, it is the person of Netanyahu who makes right-wing government like the one he calls impossible.