Israel will swear in a new government on Sunday, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will elect to oppose after a record 12 years in office and a political crisis that sparked four elections in two years.
Naftali Bennett, head of a small ultra-nationalist party, will take over as prime minister. But if he is to keep the job, he has to maintain an unwieldy coalition of right, left, and center parties.
The eight parties, including a small Arab faction that makes history by sitting in the ruling coalition, agree on their opposition to Netanyahu and new elections, but otherwise disagree on little. You are likely to have a humble agenda aimed at relieving tension with the Palestinians and maintaining good relations with the US without starting major initiatives.
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the leader of the largest party in parliament and is expected to vigorously oppose the new government. If only one faction breaks down, it could lose its majority and be in danger of collapse, giving it the opportunity to return to power.
The new administration promises a return to normal after two tumultuous years with four elections, an 11-day Gaza war last month and a coronavirus outbreak that devastated the economy before being largely brought under control by a successful vaccination campaign.
The driving force behind the coalition is Yair Lapid, a political centrist who will become prime minister in two years if the government lasts that long.
The Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset, will meet at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) to vote on the new government. It is expected that it will receive a narrow majority of at least 61 votes in the 120-member assembly and then be sworn in. The government plans to hold its first official meeting this evening.
It is unclear whether Netanyahu will attend the ceremony or when he will leave the official residence. He attacked the new administration in apocalyptic terms, accusing Bennett of defrauding voters by running as a staunch right-wing extremist and then collaborating with the left.
Netanyahu’s supporters have held angry protests outside the homes of rival MPs who claim they have received death threats naming their family members. Israel’s internal security agency Shin Bet issued a rare public warning of the incitement earlier this month, saying it could lead to violence.
Netanyahu condemned the incitement while also pointing out that it was also a target.
His place in Israeli history is secure after serving as prime minister for a total of 15 years – more than anyone, including the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.
Netanyahu began his long reign by opposing the Obama administration and refusing to freeze settlement as it tried unsuccessfully to revive the peace process. Relations with Israel’s closest ally became even more difficult when Netanyahu fought vigorously against President Barack Obama’s emerging nuclear deal with Iran, and even denounced it in a speech to the US Congress.
But he suffered little or no consequences from these clashes and was richly rewarded by the Trump administration, which recognized controversial Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, helped broker normalization deals with four Arab states, and withdrew the US from the Iran deal .
Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a world-class statesman, boasting close ties to Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has also cultivated ties with Arab and African countries that Israel long shunned because of its policies towards the Palestinians.
But it was received far more coolly by the Biden administration and is widely viewed as undermining the long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.
At home, too, his reputation as a political magician has faded, where he has become a deeply polarizing figure. Critics say he has long pursued a strategy of divide and rule that has widened the divide between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society, as well as between its close ultra-Orthodox allies and secular Jews.
In November 2019, he was charged with fraud, breach of trust and taking bribes. He turned down calls for resignation and instead hit the media, the judiciary and law enforcement agencies, accusing his political opponents of orchestrating an attempted coup. Over the past year, protesters began holding weekly rallies across the country urging him to step down.
Netanyahu remains popular with the hardline nationalists who dominate Israeli politics, but he could soon take on a leadership role within his own party. A less polarizing Likud leader would have a good chance of forming a coalition that is both more right-wing and more stable than the government that is to be sworn in.