A self-made tech millionaire who heads a small hard-line party in Israel has thrown his crucial support behind a plan to unseat Israel’s longest-serving prime minister after a 12-year reign.
Ultra-nationalist leader Naftali Bennett said his party would join talks to form a “unity government” with a coalition of parties from across the political spectrum.
The rival politicians are reported to be closing in on a deal to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as truce talks continue between Israel and Hamas over the Gaza conflict.
Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry hosted his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, in Cairo, to shore up a truce between Israel and Hamas and stressed the need to build on the May 21 ceasefire, which ended 11 days of deadly fighting.
Mr Netanyahu might not get to see the country through the peace process if Naftali Bennett has his way.
The far-right party leader is looking to be Israel’s likely next prime minister and dreams of annexing most of the occupied West Bank.
In a much-anticipated televised address on Monday morning (Australian time), Mr Bennett announced his decision to join a government with opposition chief Yair Lapid.
Together they would assemble a coalition of right-wing, centrist and leftist parties to hand Mr Netanyahu his first election defeat since 1999.
Mr Netanyahu’s rivals have cited his corruption case as a main reason why Israel needs a new leader, arguing that he might use a new term to legislate immunity to shield himself.
The new prospective coalition’s diverse members would have little in common apart from a plan to end Mr Netanyahu’s run.
Mr Bennett said he and Mr Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party “disagree on a number of issues of substance” but are “partners in our love for the country and willingness to work for the sake of the country”.
“I intend to act with all my strength to form a national-unity government together with my friend Yair Lapid so that, God willing, together we will rescue the country from this tailspin, and we will get Israel back on track,” he said.
Mr Lapid faces a Wednesday deadline from Israel’s president to announce a new government.
His chances of success have rested largely with Mr Bennett, a former defence chief and a high-tech millionaire whose Yamina party’s six seats in the 120-member parliament are enough to give him the status of kingmaker.
Under a prospective power-sharing deal, Mr Bennett would replace Mr Netanyahu, the 71-year-old head of the Likud party, as prime minister and later give way to centrist Mr Lapid in a rotation agreement.
Responding on television to Mr Bennett’s announcement, Mr Netanyahu accused him of perpetrating “the fraud of the century”, citing past public promises Mr Bennett made not to join up with Mr Lapid.
Mr Netanyahu even made a three-way counter-offer to stand aside in favour of another right-wing politician, Gideon Saar.
Under that blueprint, Mr Saar would serve as prime minister for 15 months, Mr Netanyahu would return for two years, and Mr Bennett would then take over for the rest of the government’s term.
However, Mr Saar, a former Likud cabinet minister, swiftly rejected the offer.
Calls for a truce
Mr Bennett’s announcement to join forces with the country’s opposition leader came as Egypt and Israel held talks to shore up a fragile truce between Israel and the Hamas militant group.
Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry affirmed in his meeting with Israel’s Gabi Ashkenazi in Cairo “the need to take into account the special sensitivity associated with East Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and all Islamic and Christian holy sites”, an Egyptian statement said.
Egypt reiterated its call for creating an appropriate atmosphere to revive talks between Israelis and Palestinians with the aim of reaching a two-state solution, the statement added.
Mr Ashkenazi, whose trip to Cairo was the first such visit in 13 years, said he would discuss with Egyptian officials “establishing a permanent ceasefire with Hamas,” along with ways to help rebuild Gaza.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.
Mr Netanyahu said his meeting dealt with regional security issues and ways to prevent Hamas from siphoning off civilian aid to strengthen its capabilities.
Mr Kamel also met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Sunday and handed him a message from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi affirming Egyptian support to Palestinians and Mr Abbas, state news agency MENA said.
Both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Ashkenazi said a key aim for Israel was to secure the return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers held for years in Gaza. Hamas has refused to hand them over.
In tweets after the meeting, Mr Ashkenazi called Egypt an important regional ally committed to peace in the region, adding: “We all need to act to prevent strengthening extremist elements that threaten regional stability, and to ensure the return home of the missing persons and prisoners held by Hamas”.