Rival politicians in Israel united only by their opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu could be closing in on a deal to oust the country’s longest-serving leader as soon as this week.
The opposition leader Yair Lapid, a former TV news anchor popular with the country’s secular middle class, has until a Wednesday deadline to build a coalition government after Netanyahu failed to do so.
Local media reports suggested Lapid, 57, had made a power-sharing offer to a political foe, Naftali Bennett, 49, a former settler leader and hard-right religious nationalist who wants to annex most of the occupied West Bank.
Under the unconfirmed agreement, Bennett, a tech millionaire who previously headed the defence and education ministries, would become prime minister for the first two years of a term, with Lapid replacing him for the final two. Bennett is due to meet with his Yamina alliance on Sunday.
Despite vast differences, opponents of Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges that he denies, have accused the 71-year-old of divisiveness and prioritising his hold on power above all else.
“We need a government that will reflect the fact that we don’t hate one another. A government in which left, right and centre will work together to tackle the economic and security challenges we face,” Lapid said last week.
Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party won the most seats in a March election and was given 28 days to build a majority coalition government. He too suggested a similar power-sharing deal with Bennett but it was swiftly rejected. After the deadline passed on 5 May, Lapid was handed a mandate under Israel’s electoral system.
Lapid, once a finance minister whose Yesh Atid party came second in the last election, had sped up political consultations in recent days following a two-week bout of Gaza bloodshed that froze negotiations.
The self-proclaimed centrist and “security hawk” has sought to forge tricky alliances with parties from across the political spectrum.
He plans to bring together the establishment Labour and anti-occupation Meretz parties with their traditional enemies. They include Bennett but also Avigdor Lieberman, who once suggested that “disloyal” members of the country’s Arab minority, who make up about 20% of its population of 9 million, should be beheaded.
The diverse group may require outside backing by Arab members of parliament, including Islamists, who would help Lapid clinch a 61-seat majority and dethrone Netanyahu. However, their ideological differences are too great to be full coalition members, meaning Lapid would probably form a minority government.
If the deal is successful, it could end both a political deadlock that has brought four snap elections since 2019 and Netanyahu’s 12-year stretch as prime minister.
Netanyahu fuelled speculation that his term was about to end on Sunday by offering a last-ditch offer to Bennett and another rightwing party head, Gideon Saar. Under the deal, seen as the most generous to date from Netanyahu, the three men would each “rotate” the role of prime minister. However, Saar, a former Netanyahu protege-turned-opponent, rejected the advance. “Our position and commitment was and remains to change the Netanyahu regime,” Saar tweeted.
Lapid took the role of head of the opposition from Benny Gantz, a former army chief who fought Netanyahu during the past three elections but who lost support after he made a power-sharing deal with the prime minister that ultimately collapsed.
If Lapid fails to announce a government by Wednesday, a fifth Israeli election later this year is a possible outcome.
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