Israel crunch vote looms as anti-Netanyahu bloc seeks power

Israel’s parliament was to decide Monday when parties united against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to make their bid to topple him, but the combative incumbent has refused to go without a fight.

Tensions were high a day after Netanyahu accused his opponents of “the greatest election fraud” in the history of democracy, while his rival Naftali Bennet urged him to “let go” rather than wage a last-ditch “scorched earth” campaign.

The turmoil comes only weeks after Israel’s latest war in Gaza with the Islamist group Hamas, which Monday threatened renewed escalation over a planned right-wing Israeli flag march in annexed east Jerusalem. Organisers then said their rally had been cancelled due to police opposition to the route.

Israel’s legislature, the Knesset, was Monday set to announce the date of the vote that could confirm a new government made up of an eight-party alliance spanning the political spectrum that is held together by its shared desire to oust Netanyahu.

If passed, it would set in motion the final days of Netanyahu’s 12 years of consecutive rule in which the 71-year-old veteran nicknamed Bibi has utterly dominated Israeli politics and shifted it firmly to the right.

Netanyahu, who faces corruption charges that could result in jail time, has tried to prove his reputation as Israel’s ultimate political survivor and has doubled down on rhetoric aimed at torpedoing the nascent coalition.

Urging his right-wing Likud party supporters to protest against the “dangerous left-wing government” in the making, Netanyahu decried the “violent machine” aligned against him.

Right-wing nationalist Bennett — who would be Israel’s premier for the next two years under the “change” coalition deal — appealed to the Knesset speaker to schedule a vote as early as Wednesday, while urging Netanyahu to “let go”.

“Don’t leave scorched earth in your wake,” Bennett said in comments directed at the embattled premier Sunday evening. 

“We want to remember the good, the great deal of good, you did during your service, and not, God forbid, a negative atmosphere you would leave upon your departure.”

– ‘Violent discourse’ –

The diverse bloc that last week announced it had secured backing from enough lawmakers to usher in a new era of Israeli politics includes three right-wing, two centrist and two left-wing parties, along with an Arab Islamic conservative party.

After Bennett, who heads the right-wing Yamina party, serves his two years as premier, the position is meant to rotate to the centrist Yair Lapid, a former TV presenter who is the coalition’s architect.

Netanyahu has been trying to thwart the fragile coalition by attempting to lure back into his camp right-wing defectors who feel uneasy about working together with left-wing and Arab lawmakers.

Alarm has grown about angry rallies by Netanyahu supporters, including protests outside the homes of some Yamina lawmakers accusing them of “betrayal”. Security has been stepped up for some MPs.

The chief of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency, Nadav Argaman, at the weekend issued a rare public statement warning of a “severe escalation in violent and inciting discourse” online.

A Shin Bet spokesperson told AFP the message was intended to dampen the “general atmosphere”, but anti-Netanyahu politicians interpreted it as a warning to the prime minister.

– ‘Red lines crossed’ –

Netanyahu has dismissed the Shin Bet warning, saying “there is a very thin line between political criticism and inciting violence,” while issuing a blanket condemnation of any incitement.

Yediot Aharonot, the country’s most read paper, meanwhile argued in an editorial that “the attempts to challenge and prevent the establishment of the new government have crossed every red line”.

The political turmoil comes at a time of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Israeli police have repeatedly clashed with protesters in an east Jerusalem neighbourhood angered by the looming expulsions of Palestinian families.

Parliament’s security committee was to hold an emergency meeting Monday “in light of the unusual warning issued by the head of Shin Bet” as well as over calls in recent days from far-right figures for a march in east Jerusalem.

Right-wing organisations had argued their planned Israeli flag march Thursday would be a routine demonstration of free expression, but many critics feared it could set a match to already inflamed tensions.

A top Hamas official, Khalil al-Hayya, on Monday warned Israel “against letting the march approach east Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque compound”.

“We hope the message is clear so that Thursday doesn’t become (a new) May 10,” he said, in reference to the start of the 11-day war which Hamas launched in response to the east Jerusalem tensions.

Israeli right-wing organisers said later Monday they had scrapped the march after police had refused to authorise the route passing through Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem. 

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