A ‘surprising marriage’: who are the Israeli parties out to oust Benjamin Netanyahu?

The government coalition will combine far-right leader, a two-state solution advocate and Arab Islamists

Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett pictured together in 2013
Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett pictured together in 2013
(Image credit: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Israel’s opposition parties have reached an agreement to form a government that will spell the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year reign as prime minister.

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, yesterday announced that an eight-party coalition had been agreed following frenetic negotiations as the clock ticked down to a midnight deadline.

A parliamentary vote is still required before the coalition can be sworn in. But the “surprising” political “marriage” of a centrist, a staunch right-winger and an Arab party leader “is undoubtedly a powerful and symbolic image”, says The Telegraph.

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Here are the main players in the unprecedented union.

PM No. 1: Naftali Bennett

Seven seats

A photograph circulating on social media shows the formal signing last night of the coalition agreement, with right-winger Naftali Bennett sitting alongside centrist Lapid and Mansour Abbas of the United Arab List, commonly known in Israel by the Hebrew acronym Ra’am.

Bennett is a “hard-line religious nationalist” who was “once the head of a prominent Jewish settler group” and is now “expected to become Israel’s next prime minister”, says The Guardian. He served as minister of diaspora affairs and as minister of defence under former ally Netanyahu, but now leads Yamina, a coalition of Israeli right-wing parties.

Bennett is “open about his plans for millions living under occupation”, the paper adds.

His ultimate ambition is to “expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem”, The Telegraph reports. However, Bennett is understood to have made “concessions that will benefit Arabs in Israel” in order to get the coalition over the line, a move that will be “very difficult for staunch right-wingers in Yamina to swallow”.

Under the coalition agreement, Bennett will serve as PM for the first two years of the government’s four-year term, before handing over to Lapid for the second half.

PM No. 2: Yair Lapid

17 seats

A journalist and TV presenter-turned-political leader, Lapid is chair of Yesh Atid, a centrist party that sits as the main opposition in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. He served as finance minister in Netanyahu’s coalition government between 2013 and 2014, and “focused on re-organising a system that provided welfare payouts to the ultra-Orthodox community”, Al Jazeera reports.

Unlike his new coalition partner Bennett, Lapid advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but “opposes any division of Jerusalem which is seen by Palestinians as the capital of their future state”, the broadcaster adds.

Bennett has “long derided” Lapid for his support for a two-state end to hostilities, The Guardian says. But the pair have described each other as friends in recent days, a shift that has “infuriated right-wing voters” who see Bennett as “allying with a man they thought he detested”.

The outsider: Mansour Abbas

Four seats

What makes the coalition so unlikely is the inclusion of Ra’am, a small Islamist party representing Israel’s Arab population that has roots in the same religious movement as Hamas, the militant group that runs the Gaza Strip.

Ra’am supports a two-state solution, with the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and wants the recognition of equal rights for the Arab population of Israel.

Party leader Abbas has made history by agreeing to become the first Arab politician to join an Israeli government coalition - “in contrast to previous Arab leaders who have only offered external support to Israeli coalitions”, The Telegraph says.

But while the viral image of Abbas sitting alongside Bennett and Lapid is being hailed as a “warming emblem of co-existence between Israelis and Arabs”, the “political marriage could run aground very quickly”, the paper adds. “On the fundamental issues that define Israel's politics, its members are poles apart.”

The deputy-turned-foe: Benny Gantz

Eight seats

Gantz leads Kahol Lavan, often referred to as Blue and White, and currently sits as alternate PM and minister of defence, after forming a new government with then-caretaker PM Netanyahu last year.

That decision to team up with Netanyahu split the Blue and White alliance, with Gantz later saying that he “regretted” the move “because of the prime minister’s broken pledges”, The Washington Post reports.

Gantz’s platform includes amending the nation-state law to include Israeli minorities and reopening negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over a peace deal - making him another unlikely bedfellow for the ultra-nationalist Bennett.

The hard-line secularist: Avigdor Lieberman

Seven seats

Lieberman is the founder and head of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel is our Home”) party. Born in Moldova, he lives in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank and served as an aide to Netanyahu in the 1990s.

In 2019, Lieberman “took a huge gamble by refusing to join a Netanyahu coalition government”, citing his opposition to “the long-standing divide within Israel between its secular and ultra-religious communities”, Haaretz reports.

The far-right politician has made “many, many headlines” for other reasons too since entering the Knesset in 1999, by triggering a series of scandals ranging from making “anti-Arab comments, to a conviction for assaulting a young boy, a graft trial and even telling the president of Egypt ‘to go to hell’”, the paper adds.

But Bennett may find a sympathetic ear in Lieberman, whose party has historically adopted a hard line on the peace process and the integration of Israeli Arabs. Yisrael Beitenu advocates for a recognition of the two-state solution, including the creation of a Palestinian state that would include an exchange of some majority Arab parts of Israel for largely Jewish-inhabited parts of the West Bank.

The progressive feminist: Merav Michaeli

Seven seats

A “blunt-speaking” former television journalist, Michaeli is the tenth leader of the Israeli Labor Party in the past two decades and has set her sights on “reinvigorating the left-wing party's fortunes after years in the wilderness”, The Jewish News reports.

She was the only one of Labor’s three Knesset members who refused last year to sit in the Netanyahu government, and is an avowed feminist, changing her use of Hebrew, “which is a strictly genderised language”, to include “feminine plurals”, the paper adds.

Michaeli has stated that she wants to push forward with efforts to solve Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, describing the issue as being “of profound Israeli interest” and “necessary for the security and sustainability of Israel”. Her party’s foreign policy is strongly oriented towards the US, particularly Joe Biden’s Democrats, and also advocates for a mixed economy with strong social welfare programmes.

The ex-Likud hopeful: Gideon Sa’ar

Six seats

Sa’ar is the head of the centre-right to right-wing New Hope, after running against Netanyahu unsuccessfully in 2019 to become the leader of the governing Likud party. During that election, Netanyahu’s campaign team repeatedly attacked Sa’ar, claiming on Twitter that he “aligned with the Left and the media in order to remove the prime minister from the leadership of the state”.

The New Hope chief is opposed to a two-state solution, telling The Times of Israel in 2018 that there “there is no two-state solution - there is at most a two-state slogan”. Instead, Sa’ar supports an annexation of the West Bank, while also being willing to back Palestinian autonomy in a federation with Jordan.

Sa’ar is set to be foreign minister in the new coalition and said during negotiations that Netanyahu “must be replaced”.

The leftist environmentalist: Nitzan Horowitz

Six seats

Another former journalist, Horowitz resigned as head of the the news division of Israel’s Channel 10 in 2008 in order to enter politics, and is only the second openly gay Knesset member in Israeli history.

He became leader of Meretz in 2019 and is a staunch supporter of a two-state solution, LGBT rights and progressive environmentalism.

Horowitz said following the signing of the new coalition deal that his involvement was based on a commitment from Lapid to include “a commitment to advance the LGBT community and the [legal] standing of same-sex couples as married”. However, such a “pledge appears to run counter to the coalition agreement signed with Islamist party Ra’am, which freezes any LGBT initiatives”, The Times of Israel reports.

What happens next?

The new government will not be sworn in until being approved by a parliamentary vote - and in the meantime, Netanyahu “will do all he can to stop it”, says the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen.

“No rational political enemy of Netanyahu can underestimate his tenacity, ruthlessness and absolute determination to hold on to office,” Bowen writes, and “if he found himself leader of the opposition, he would do all he could to destabilise a coalition with a wafer-thin majority”.

Indeed, getting the government over the line is just the beginning of the challenge facing Netanyahu’s political rivals.

Some analysts view the “unusual and awkward alliance between eight political parties from a diverse array of ideologies” as “the embodiment of Israel’s political dysfunction”, says The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief Patrick Kingsley.

And while the newly agreed government may end Netanyahu’s political dominance, its members may prove to be “too incompatible for their compact to last”, Kingsley adds.

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