Israel’s opposition leader has moved closer to unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he officially told the country’s president he had reached agreements with political allies to form a new government.
About 35 minutes before a Wednesday midnight deadline, the centrist Yair Lapid told President Reuven Rivlin in an email: “I am honoured to inform you that I have succeeded in forming a government.”
Mr Rivlin, attending Israel’s football cup final at the time, congratulated Mr Lapid by phone, according to his office.
Mr Lapid’s main partner is nationalist Naftali Bennett, who would serve as prime minister first under a rotation between the two men. Mr Lapid, 57, a former TV host and finance minister, would take over after about two years.
Their coalition government would comprise small and medium parties from across the political spectrum, including for the first time in Israel’s history a party that represents Israel’s Arab minority – the United Arab List.
It would also include Mr Bennett’s Yamina (Rightward), centre-left Blue and White, headed by Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the left-wing Meretz and Labour parties, former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and New Hope, a right-wing party headed by former education minister Gideon Saar, who broke away from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud.
But the fragile new government, which would command a razor-thin majority in parliament, was only expected to be sworn in on June 14, leaving room for Netanyahu’s camp to try to get MPs to vote against it.
“Calm down. Netanyahu’s still prime minister for a few more days until the confidence vote and he’s going to fight every inch of the way to deny the new government its wafer-thin majority. This is still very far from over,” Anshel Pfeffer, political analyst for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, wrote on Twitter.
Mr Netanyahu, who has yet to respond to Mr Lapid’s announcement, controls 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, almost twice as many as Mr Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, and he is allied with at least three other religious and nationalist parties.
During a 12-year run in top office, Israel’s longest-serving leader has been an often polarising figure at home and abroad.
Mr Netanyahu, 71, has sought to discredit the Bennett-Lapid alliance, saying it would endanger Israel’s security – an allusion to efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program and manage ever-fraught Palestinian ties.
Mr Lapid, a centrist, was given the task of forming a governing coalition after right-wing Netanyahu failed to do so following a March 23 election. He campaigned under a pledge to “return sanity” to Israel, focusing on Netanyahu’s corruption trial on charges he denies.
“This government will work for all Israel’s citizens, those who voted for it and those who did not. It will respect its opponents and do all it can to unites and connect all parts of Israeli society,” Mr Lapid said on Twitter.
The new government, if it is sworn in, will face considerable diplomatic, security and economic challenges: Iran, the moribund peace process with the Palestinians, a war crimes probe by the International Criminal Court and economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is a night of great hope,” Mr Gantz said on Twitter as he set out on a trip to Washington in the aftermath of 11 days of fierce fighting with militants in Gaza last month and as world powers press on in reviving a nuclear deal with Iran.
An end to Mr Netanyahu’s tenure may bring reprieve from unprecedented domestic political turmoil – Israel has held four elections in two years – but major shifts in Israel’s foreign policy appear less likely.
After Mr Lapid’s announcement, a few dozen activists from the protest movement against Mr Netanyahu broke out in cheers. “He’s finished, he’s finished, yalla Bibi, go,” they chanted outside a bar in Tel Aviv, referring to Mr Netanyahu by his nickname.