Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday faced the likely end of his 12-year rule as a fragile alliance of his political enemies hoped to oust him in a parliament vote and form a new government.
Embattled Netanyahu, in typically combative style, vowed that “if it’s our destiny to be in the opposition, we’ll do so with our heads high until we take down this bad government and return to lead the country our way”.
Beloved as “King Bibi” by his right-wing supporters and condemned as the “crime minister” by his critics, the hawkish Netanyahu has long been the dominant, and increasingly divisive, figure in Israeli politics and the country’s longest-serving premier.
If the fragile eight-party alliance wins a razor-thin majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Netanyahu, 71, will be replaced as premier by his one-time ally Naftali Bennett, a right-wing Jewish nationalist and former tech millionaire.
Bennett, in a speech to the Knesset interrupted by raucous boos, promised the new government, a motley coalition of ideologically divergent parties, would “represents all of Israel”.
He said the country, after four inconclusive elections in under two years, had been thrown “into a maelstrom of hatred and in-fighting”.
“The time has come for different leaders, from all parts of the population, to stop, to stop this madness,” he said to angry shouts of “liar” and “criminal” from right-wing opponents.
Bennett, a former defence minister, also vowed to keep Israel safe from what it considers its arch foe, Iran, promising that “Israel won’t let Iran have nuclear weapons” — a goal the Islamic republic denies pursuing.
Netanyahu, true to his reputation as Israel’s “Mr Security”, charged that “Iran is celebrating” the prospect of what he labelled a “dangerous” and weak left-wing government.
The diverse anti-Netanyahu bloc was cobbled together by the secular centrist Yair Lapid, a former TV presenter, and includes right-wing and left-wing groups as well as Arab-Israeli lawmakers.
The upcoming crunch vote will either end Netanyahu’s record time in office or, in case of a last-minute upset, return Israel to a stalemate likely to trigger a fifth general election since 2019.
“A morning of change,” promised a Sunday tweet by Lapid, who would serve as foreign minister under the coalition deal before taking over the premiership in 2023, provided the wobbly alliance survives that long.
– Fragile coalition –
Netanyahu, who is battling corruption charges in an ongoing trial he dismisses as a conspiracy, has been the dominant Israeli politician of his generation, having also served a previous three-year term in the 1990s.
Thousands of protesters rallied outside his official residence late Saturday, waving “Bye Bye Bibi” signs.
In Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Sunday, Netanyahu’s opponents were gathering for an evening of celebrations, music playing as technicians tested a sound system.
“I have mixed feelings about this government,” said 19-year-old Tal Surkis about the change coalition, but he added that “it’s something Israel needs”.
The anti-Netanyahu bloc spans the political spectrum, including three right-wing, two centrist and two left-wing parties, along with an Arab Islamic conservative party.
The improbable alliance emerged weeks after an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, and following inter-communal violence in Israeli cities with significant Arab populations.
Netanyahu, who long ago earned a reputation as Israel’s ultimate political survivor, has meanwhile tried to peel off defectors that would deprive the nascent coalition of its wafer-thin legislative majority.
He has accused Bennett of “fraud” for siding with rivals, and angry rallies by the premier’s Likud party supporters have resulted in security being bolstered for some lawmakers.
– ‘Scorched earth’ –
Netanyahu’s bombastic remarks as he has seen his grip on power slip have drawn parallels at home and abroad to former US president Donald Trump, who described his election loss last year as the result of a rigged vote.
The embattled premier has called the prospective coalition “the greatest election fraud” in history, while his opponents have accused him and his allies of stoking tensions in a “scorched-earth” campaign.
If Netanyahu loses the premiership, he will not be able to push through parliament changes to basic laws that could give him immunity on charges he faces in his corruption trial.
Sunday’s vote comes at a time of heightened tensions in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which has grown more bitter in the Netanyahu years, in part due to the expansion of settlements considered illegal under international law in the occupied West Bank.
Meanwhile, right-wing anger has grown in Israel over last week’s postponement of a controversial Jewish nationalist march through flashpoint areas of east Jerusalem.
The “March of the Flags” is now slated for Tuesday, and the agitation surrounding it could represent a key initial test for a new coalition government.
Gaza’s rulers Hamas said that the political developments in Jerusalem wouldn’t change its relationship with Israel.
“The form the Israeli government takes doesn’t change the nature of our relationship,” said spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. “Its still a colonising and occupying power that we must resist.”