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Netanyahu may face imminent end to long run as Israel’s leader

Published: Updated:

Israeli far-right politician Naftali Bennett will deliver a statement on Sunday in which he is widely expected to throw his crucial support behind a “government of change” to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Opposition chief Yair Lapid, who has until Wednesday to put together a coalition after the fourth inconclusive election in two years, was closing in on an alliance of right-wing, centrist and leftist parties, Israeli media reported.

Lapid’s chances of success rest with Bennett, a 49-year-old former defense chief whose Yamina party’s six seats in the 120-member parliament are enough to give him the status of kingmaker.

Under the prospective power-sharing deal, Bennett would replace Netanyahu, 71, as prime minister and later give way to Lapid in a rotation agreement.

The new coalition’s diverse members would have little in common apart from a plan to end the 12-year-run of Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, now on trial over corruption charges he denies.

Bennett will make a statement at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT), Yamina said, when he is widely expected to announce that he will team up with Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party placed second to Netanyahu’s Likud in a March 23 election.

Meeting Yamina’s legislators on Sunday, Bennett received their support for his coalition moves, a Yamina statement said.

Israel’s YNet website said Bennett told the lawmakers that he was “marching towards a government of change”. Other media outlets quoted him as saying Netanyahu did not have enough backing for a right-wing government and a deal with Lapid would avoid a fifth national election.

An anti-Netanyahu coalition would be fragile and require outside backing by Arab members of parliament who oppose much of Bennett’s agenda, which includes more settlement building in the occupied West Bank and its partial annexation.

It would be expected to focus on the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, while setting aside issues on which members disagree, such as the role of religion in society and Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

A Bennett-Lapid agreement had already been reported as close when violence broke out between Israel and Gaza militants on May 10 and the Yamina leader suspended the discussions. The fighting ended with a ceasefire after 11 days.

Israeli Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at prime minister office in Jerusalem on January 27, 2019. (File photo: AFP)
Israeli Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at prime minister office in Jerusalem on January 27, 2019. (File photo: AFP)

Counter-offer

Trying to scupper an opposition deal, Netanyahu made a three-way counter-offer on Sunday to stand aside in favor of another right-wing politician, Gideon Saar.

Under that blueprint, Saar would serve as prime minister for 15 months, Netanyahu would return for two years, and Bennett would then take over for the rest of the government’s term.

“We are at a fateful moment for Israel’s security, character and future, when you put aside any personal considerations and take far-reaching and even unprecedented steps,” Netanyahu said in a video statement about the proposal.

However, Saar, a former Likud cabinet minister, swiftly rejected the offer, writing on Twitter: “Our position and commitment are unchanged - to end Netanyahu’s rule.”

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.

If Lapid, 57, fails to announce a government by Wednesday, a new election is likely.

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