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Netanyahu's enemies may have a deal, but they haven't got a government yet

“This is the most difficult coalition to build in Israel’s history and it’s far from done,” said Anshel Pfeffer, who wrote a biography of Netanyahu.
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It ain't over 'til it's over.

News that two major opposition parties agreed to work together to form a coalition government has dealt a significant political blow to Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

But this isn’t the first time Netanyahu has been in a battle for his political survival. He already has signaled he won’t go quietly — and stark differences between the opposition’s ideologies could be the fragile coalition’s very undoing.

“This is the most difficult coalition to build in Israel’s history and it’s far from done,” Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who wrote a biography of Netanyahu, said on Twitter.

How we got here

Israel's complex parliamentary system means Netanyahu would only be replaced as prime minister if an unwieldy ideologically diverse coalition of parties from the left, the center and the right agree to bury their differences and unite against him to form a coalition government.

The precarious position Netanyahu finds himself in is the result of an inconclusive March 23 election — Israel’s fourth in two years.

Image: Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett speak at a reception marking the opening of the Knesset in 2013 in Jerusalem.
That a former settler leader like Naftali Bennett, right, would team up with a centrist like Yair Lapid underscores the deep-seated urge for many in Israeli politics to end Netanyahu's time in office.Uriel Sinai / Getty Images file

While Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most representation, it failed to secure the 61 seats needed to form a majority in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, or Parliament. No single party has ever won an outright majority in the Knesset, making governing coalitions a fact of life in Israel.

Netanyahu was given the chance to put together a governing coalition but those efforts failed, prompting Israel’s figurehead president to turn the task over to the opposition.

Leading that charge was Yair Lapid of Israel’s second-largest and centrist Yesh Atid party. Lapid — a former broadcast journalist — had the backing of smaller liberal parties in Israel but initially was unable to unite the anti-Netanyahu coalition under his leadership.

Enter Naftali Bennett, a former defense minister and onetime Netanyahu ally-turned-rival who heads the small religious and hard-line Yamina party. While Yamina controls just seven seats in the Knesset, those seats appear to be the count that could take Lapid over the finish line to form a majority.

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Bennett, a far-right former leader of the West Bank settlement movement, previously had said he would refuse to serve in any government alongside the centrist Lapid. But that all changed Sunday night with a dramatic announcement.

Casting political uncertainty and a possible fifth election as a greater threat to Israel than ideological differences, Bennett said he would join forces with Lapid.

“It’s my intention to do my utmost in order to form a national unity government along with my friend Yair Lapid, so that, God willing, together we can save the country from a tailspin and return Israel to its course,” Bennett said.

That a former settler leader would team up with a centrist like Lapid underscores the deep-seated urge for many in Israeli politics to end Netanyahu's time in office.

The Netanyahu era

Netanyahu, 71, has been at the helm since 2009, forging alliances with smaller religious and nationalist parties to win and stay in power. Over the years, he has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, alienating a long list of former allies during his lengthy tenure. Three parties in the last election were led by former top aides who fell out with him.

Ahead of the most recent vote, Netanyahu portrayed himself as a global statesman best able to navigate the complex diplomatic and security challenges that face the world’s only Jewish state. He has touted his strong relationship with former President Donald Trump, as well as Israel’s agreements to normalize ties with four Arab states last year as evidence of his diplomatic know-how. Netanyahu has also promoted Israel’s world-beating vaccine rollout, which allowed the country to reopen most of its economy after months of government-imposed lockdowns.

However, some critics have accused him of mismanaging the pandemic for much of the past year, and point to the fact that Israel has recorded more than 6,000 Covid-19 deaths. They also flag Netanyahu’s legal troubles: Last month saw the start of a major corruption trial against him on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Netanyahu — the first sitting prime minister to be charged with a crime — denies all wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a “witch hunt.”

After Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in the March election, the prime minister courted his rivals and made an unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party in hopes of cobbling together a governing coalition. But those efforts failed — giving Lapid four weeks to unite a patchwork of parties.

Who's on board

Lapid's proposed "government of change" would be comprised of unlikely bedfellows from across the political spectrum — right-wing, centrist and leftist parties. He has until Wednesday to complete the task.

On Friday, Lapid’s Yesh Atid said it had reached agreements with Israel’s left-wing Meretz party and the New Hope party — a hard-line nationalist faction made up mostly of former Netanyahu allies. The social-democratic Labour Party, which ruled the country for decades after the country's founding in 1948, also got on board.

Then came Bennett’s announcement.

Bennett and Lapid have until Wednesday to complete a deal in which each is expected to serve two years as prime minister in a rotation deal, with Bennett holding the job first.

One major potential roadblock? An anti-Netanyahu alliance would most likely require outside backing by Arab members of Parliament who oppose much of Bennett's agenda. The coalition needs to finalize agreements between eight separate parties before Wednesday. After Bennett’s announcement, talks on the deals stretched into the early hours of Monday morning.

What happens now

Bennett’s announcement Sunday that he would unite with Lapid — calling him a “friend” — to many sounded like the final nail in Netanyahu’s prime ministerial coffin.

But the longtime Israeli leader should not be counted out yet. Shortly after Bennett’s announcement, Netanyahu went on the attack.

IMAGE: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu tours the city of Lod on May 12.Ahmad Gharabli / AFP - Getty Images file

"This is a con,” he said in televised remarks. “This is not a national unity government, it is an anti-Zionist government. This is a con government and we should not allow this to happen."

Lapid called Netanyahu’s remarks about a coalition “dangerous and unhinged,” saying they underscore the need for new leadership in Israel.

“A country that is divided and violent won't be able to deal with Iran or with the economy,” he said. “I want to remind you of something we've forgotten — the fact that you don't agree with someone, doesn't mean you hate them. The fact that someone argues with you, doesn't make them an enemy.”

While Lapid might appear to be on the brink of pulling off a coalition, Yossi Mekelberg, a senior consulting research fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank, urged caution amid a "fragile" situation.

"I will believe there is a government only when I see the vote in the Knesset with 61 votes supporting," he told NBC News. "Are you asking me if I’m going to put money on this? I’m not... That’s the nature of the political system in Israel. You never know what’s going to happen until it's done."

The parties involved, he noted, cover the left, right and "anything in between" — with opposing positions and personalities.

"What brings them together is the will to bring the Netanyahu era to an end," he said.

However, he added, Netanyahu will fight hard to stay in power.

“He’s not just fighting for political power — he’s fighting to stay out of jail,” Mekelberg said. “He’s fighting for his life right now."

And if the vote does go through?

The new government's disparate positions on key issues would make any contentious topic "very hard to tackle," according to Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. He said in an email that he would expect Netanyahu to stick around and hold onto control of Likud while chipping away at support for the coalition.

"No one should ever count Netanyahu out," Sachs said.