Israeli politicians battling to unseat veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were racing against the clock Tuesday in talks to build a “change” coalition spanning the political spectrum.
They have until a minute before midnight (2059 GMT) Wednesday to cobble together an alternative governing alliance that would bring down the right-wing leader known as Bibi, who has ruled Israel for the past 12 years.
The high-stakes push is led by former TV presenter Yair Lapid, a secular centrist, who on Sunday won the crucial support of right-wing religious nationalist Naftali Bennett, a tech millionaire.
“The coalition negotiation team sat all night and made progress toward creating a unity government,” a Bennett spokesman said in a statement, adding that further talks were scheduled for the afternoon.
In order to gain a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, their unlikely alliance would also have to include other left and right-wing parties and likely require the support of Arab-Israeli politicians.
In order to bring down the 71-year-old Netanyahu the fragile grouping would have to unite, despite their deep ideological differences on flashpoint issues such as Jewish settlements in the Israel-occupied West Bank.
Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, was tasked with forming a government by President Reuven Rivlin after Netanyahu again failed to win a majority following Israel’s fourth inconclusive election in less than two years.
He has reportedly agreed to allow Bennett, who heads the Yamina party, to serve first as prime minister of a “national unity government” in a power-sharing agreement before taking over half way through their term.
– ‘Greater goal’ –
Israel’s latest political turmoil comes as Netanyahu, the country’s longest serving premier, is on trial for criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust while in office, accusations he denies.
It also follows the latest flare-up of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, which ended after 11 days of deadly violence with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire on May 21.
Netanyahu, in power for 12 straight years after an earlier three-year term, had warned on Sunday of “a left-wing government dangerous to the state of Israel”.
The premier, who heads the right-wing Likud party and has developed a reputation as a wily political operator, was scrambling to scupper the new alliance against him.
Likud’s lawyers tried to hobble the emerging coalition by challenging Bennett’s right to serve first as prime minister, given that it was Lapid who was charged with forming the government.
But the legal adviser to Israel’s president knocked down the challenge.
Opponents of the possible alternative government meanwhile accused Bennett and his right-wing partners of betraying their voters.
Spokesmen for both Lapid and Bennett confirmed to AFP that the two have received additional security protection.
Lapid said Monday that obstacles remained to build the coalition, but added: “That’s our first test — to see if we can find smart compromises in the coming days to achieve the greater goal.”
In order to build the anti-Netanyahu bloc, Lapid must sign individual agreements with seven parties, whose members would then vote in parliament to confirm their coalition.
They include the hawkish New Hope party of Netanyahu’s former ally Gideon Saar, and right-wing secular nationalist Avigdor Lieberman’s pro-settlement Yisrael Beitenu party.
The centrist Blue and White party of Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the historically powerful centre-left Labor party, and the dovish Meretz party would also join.
– Arab Israeli support? –
If all those parties indeed sign on, the emerging alliance still needs the backing of four more lawmakers.
For that, Lapid is counting on parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, which have not yet announced their intentions.
Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamic conservative Raam party, which has four seats, has generally voiced openness to any arrangement that improves living conditions for Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority of Palestinian descent.
Political analyst Afif Abu Much said Tuesday that Abbas appeared close to signing an agreement to support the new coalition.
He said Abbas would not pursue ministerial posts, but wanted chairmanship of two parliament committees and budgets for Arab communities.
He also aimed to revoke a law that has hardened penalties for illegal construction, which is seen to impact Arab communities disproportionately.
“They don’t want to be part of the government,” Abu Much told AFP. “What they want is to be the address of the Arab people in Israel.”
Despite the alliance building to unseat Netanyahu, it would be unwise to count him out just yet, warned political scientist Jonathan Rynhold, who labelled the premier “the best card player by miles”.
If Lapid fails to muster a majority, and lawmakers cannot agree on another candidate for prime minister, Israelis will return, yet again, to the polls.