TEL AVIV — The leaders of two of Israel's main opposition parties said they would work together to form a coalition government on Sunday, in a move that could see Benjamin Netanyahu unseated as prime minister for the first time in 12 years.
Naftali Bennett, head of the small religious and nationalist Yamina party, and opposition leader Yair Lapid, of the centrist Yesh Atid party, said they had joined forces.
"In the last two years, Israel has been in a circle of elections, internal fighting with no leadership," Bennett said Sunday in a televised announcement. "This will not happen again. We can stop this and take control. There is no option for a right-wing government lead by Netanyahu — it’s either a change government or new elections."
"No one believes Netanyahu anymore," Bennett added. "In this critical moment, I’m saying I intend to form a national unity government with Lapid."
Yesh Atid said Friday it had also reached agreements with Israel’s left-wing Meretz party; the New Hope party, a hard-line nationalist faction made up mostly of former Netanyahu allies; and the social-democratic Labour Party, which ruled the country for decades after the country's founding in 1948.
Teams from both parties are set to meet in the evening and restart negotiations to form a unity government, according to a statement from Yesh Atid.
Netanyahu appeared on television Sunday after the announcement, claiming Bennett should not be taken seriously as he only wishes to be prime minister and is "zig-zagging."
"What will Iran say when they see this left-wing government? Will they fight Hamas?" Netanyahu said. "This is a con. 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."
At least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, are required to form a majority. A 28-day mandate for Lapid to form a new government would have run out on Wednesday.
Netanyahu said in a statement earlier Sunday that he had signed a "far-reaching" proposal for Bennett and New Hope party leader, Gideon Saar, to "prevent the establishment of a dangerous left-wing government." It would allow both to serve as prime minister, he said.
Bennett, a former defence minister, did not comment on his announcement.
The violence erupted amid a power vacuum in Israel after an election in March — the fourth in two years — yielded no clear winner.
Despite repeated meetings with his rivals and unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party, Netanyahu failed to meet a deadline to put together a new governing coalition earlier this month.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Netanyahu, 71, has been at the helm since 2009, but his legal troubles in recent years have overshadowed his legacy. Last month saw the start of a major corruption trial against him on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. He has denied all wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a “witch hunt.”
Netanyahu will likely remain at the helm of his Likud party as opposition leader.
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.
The new government is expected to be sworn in as early as June 8, Israel’s Channel 12 reported ahead of the announcement.
It said Bennett would serve as prime minister for the first two years and three months of the rotational government. Then, Lapid would take over in September 2023 for the last two years and three months.
Paul Goldman reported from Tel Aviv, and Yuliya Talmazan from London.