Two months after Israel’s fourth election in two years, a coalition agreement has been reached that would unseat Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years.
- Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, informed president Rivlin that he was able to form a government with just 35 minutes left of his mandate on Wednesday night.
- The agreement, which has yet to be finalised by the Knesset, would see Lapid and Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party, alternate the role of prime minister.
- The coalition brings together right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Islamist parties with a wafer-thin majority.
- Should the agreement be approved by the Knesset, it would represent an end to Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year premiership as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
- Wednesday also saw former Labor leader and Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog elected as Israel’s eleventh president.
Under the terms of the coalition agreement, Bennett would serve as prime minister until September 2023, when Lapid would take over from him until the Knesset term ends in November 2025. Analysts have highlighted Lapid’s remarkable personal sacrifice in allowing Bennett to serve first despite having only a third of Lapid’s parliamentary representation. It appears this compromise was vital in the formation of a viable coalition. With only 5 percent of seats, Bennett will be the weakest Israeli prime minister in history.
The deal’s many signatories include the centrist Yesh Atid party (17 seats), centrist Blue and White (8 seats), right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (7 seats), left-wing Labor (7 seats), right-wing Yamina (6 seats), right-wing New Hope party (6 seats), left-wing Meretz (6 seats) and Islamist Ra’am (4 seats). The coalition will have a strong centre and centre-left anchor. In total, the coalition includes 25 centrist MKs, 19 right-wingers, 13 left-wingers, and 4 members of the Islamist party. The inclusion of Ra’am, led by Mansour Abbas, represents the first Arab-majority party in decades to join part of a ruling coalition.
Lapid was granted the mandate to form a government on 5 May, after Netanyahu tried and failed to form a government of his own.
- The new government is expected to include 27 ministers, with Blue and White’s Benny Gantz remaining as defence minister, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman as finance minister, New Hope’s Gideon Saar as justice minister, Labor’s Merav Michaeli as transport minister and Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz as health minister. Lapid will initially serve as alternative prime minister and foreign minister.
- The details of the agreement with Ra’am remain to be negotiated, but the party is thought to desire legislation to legalise unrecognised Bedouin communities in southern Israel and the repeal of the Kamenitz law relating to building permits and illegal constructions.
- Among the last-minute sticking points was the insistence of Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked on being a member of the Judges Selection Committee, in place of Labor leader Merav Michaeli. Ultimately, a rotation agreement was agreed, with Labor being compensated with additional deputy ministerial roles.
Bumps in the road
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will remain in post until the new government has been finalised and approved by the Knesset. The majority negotiated by Lapid is set to include 61 of 120 members of the Knesset – a majority of one – representing the narrowest possible majority at risk from a single dissenting vote. MKs from right-wing coalition partners are expected to come under significant pressure from Netanyahu in the coming days. One MK from Bennett’s Yamina party refused to join the coalition outright, while another, Nir Orbach, has already indicated that he may vote against it.
The Knesset vote to approve the new coalition is scheduled by the speaker, currently Yariv Levin from Netanyahu’s Likud. Sources close to Levin have reportedly indicated that he plans to allow the vote of confidence on the latest possible date, in order to maximise the likelihood that disagreements within the coalition mean it cannot be approved. The latest possible date is in itself contested between claims that the seven day window begins the day a coalition is announced – i.e. Wednesday – or the Monday after that, when it can be formally announced in the Knesset – i.e. next Monday.
On Thursday morning, the new coalition MKs submitted a formal request to begin the process to replace Levin in an effort to speed up the process of approving the government. Nir Orbach – whose commitment to the coalition appears to be uncertain but whose support is crucial to a majority – has said he does not support replacing Levin. It has been speculated that the Joint List, an Arab party led by Ayman Odeh which is not part of the coalition, could be relied upon to remove Levin instead. The coalition’s candidate for Knesset speaker is expected to be Mickey Levy of Yesh Atid.
For whom the bell tolls
If implemented, the coalition agreement would unseat prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in office.
- On Thursday morning, Netanyahu called an emergency meeting with Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, incumbent coalition chair MK Miki Zohar, and the leaders of the right-Haredi bloc.
- The meeting was intended to discuss ways to disrupt the new unity government before it is voted into office in the coming week.
- Netanyahu supporters have heaped enormous pressure on right-wing partners in the new coalition, particularly Yamina MKs.
- Close Netanyahu ally Miki Zohar tweeted “The left is celebrating, but this is a sad day for Israel. Bennett, Sa’ar and Shaked should be ashamed”.
- At a rally outside the hotel where negotiations were taking place on Wednesday, protestors held up signs appealing to Bennet: “Don’t form a left-wing government with supporters of terror”.
- Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg had to flee her home on Tuesday after right-wing threats were made against her baby daughter.
Wednesday also saw the Knesset elect Isaac Herzog as Israel’s eleventh president. Herzog, who led the Labor party from 2013 to 2018, is currently the chairman of the Jewish Agency. Herzog secured a powerful majority of MK votes, with 87 out of 120, to beat educator Miriam Peretz to the presidency. His seven-year term in the largely ceremonial role of president will start on 9 July, when he will succeed incumbent Reuvin Rivlin. “I plan to be everyone’s president to listen to any position and listen to any person”, Herzog said after his election. He continued: “It is essential to tend to the bleeding wounds in our society; we must defend Israel’s international standing and its good name among the nations; combat antisemitism and hatred of Israel; protect the pillars of our democracy”. Herzog’s Belfast-born father, Chaim, served as Israel’s sixth president between 1983 and 1993.
Should the new coalition succeed in replacing the Knesset speaker, a vote of confidence in the new government will take place as early as Monday. There remains ample time for things to go wrong, though – and Netanyahu will do all he can to make sure that happens.