‘Watershed moment’: Netanyahu’s fate on the line as Israel prepares for historic vote

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Copies of ballots papers and campaign posters for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party lie on the ground in the aftermath of the country's parliamentary elections, early on March 18, 2015 in Tel Aviv. On Sunday,  Israel's parliament is poised to cast a historic vote that could end Benjamin Netanyahu's 12-year tenure as prime minister.
Copies of ballots papers and campaign posters for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party lie on the ground in the aftermath of the country's parliamentary elections, early on March 18, 2015 in Tel Aviv. On Sunday, Israel's parliament is poised to cast a historic vote that could end Benjamin Netanyahu's 12-year tenure as prime minister.

Israel's parliament is poised to cast a historic vote on Sunday that could end Benjamin Netanyahu's 12-year tenure as prime minister and usher in a "change coalition" that includes hardline factions, centrists and an Arab party, the first ever in an Israeli government.

"It's happening!" Yair Lapid, the leader of a centrist party and chief broker of the coalition deal, tweeted in a jubilant message when the vote was scheduled. "The unity government is launching for the benefit of the citizens of the State of Israel."

Despite Lapid's optimism, the outcome remains uncertain as Netanyahu and his allies continue a campaign to derail the odd-bedfellows alliance. Indeed, the vote will unfold after days of heightened tensions, daily protests and threats of violence against those seeking Netanyahu's ouster.

Nationalist politician Naftali Bennett – a former chief of staff to Netanyahu who will become prime minister if the Knesset approves the new government – and other coalition members were assigned security details after receiving death threats as they strove to preserve their fragile union. The new coalition will need to win at least 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset.

"It's not over 'till it's over – in Israeli politics in particular (and) Bibi Netanyahu in particular," said Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the State Department during the Obama administration.

For Netanyahu, the stakes could not be higher. The vote would not just strip him of the prime minister position and relegate him to an opposition figure. It would also increase his legal jeopardy as he battles corruption charges in an ongoing criminal trial.

A supporter of Israel's newly formed government "change coalition" holds a placard reading in Hebrew "we won't give up until it's better here!" during a rally in support of the coalition in Tel Aviv, on June 6, 2021.
A supporter of Israel's newly formed government "change coalition" holds a placard reading in Hebrew "we won't give up until it's better here!" during a rally in support of the coalition in Tel Aviv, on June 6, 2021.
An Israeli woman rips a poster showing photos of expected incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Mansur Abbas, the head of the United Arab List party and lawmaker Ahmed Tibi during a demonstration against the emerging Israeli government on June 10, 2021 in Jerusalem.
An Israeli woman rips a poster showing photos of expected incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Mansur Abbas, the head of the United Arab List party and lawmaker Ahmed Tibi during a demonstration against the emerging Israeli government on June 10, 2021 in Jerusalem.

"This really is a fight for political survival," said Osamah Khalil, a historian of U.S. foreign relations and the modern Middle East at Syracuse University. He said the coalition doesn't just want to remove Netanyahu as prime minister. "They want to end his political career."

The possibility of a post-Netanyahu government has unleashed a mix of optimism and doom in Israel, said Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, which advocates for a two-state solution. Some hope for a return to normalcy after four successive elections over the last two years that produced only paralysis and polarization. Others see the coalition as a "government of wickedness" that threatens the Jewish faith and endangers Israel's Jewish character, as one group of ultraorthodox rabbis warned.

'End of an era'

If the coalition is approved, it would be historic in many ways – first and foremost, by bringing an end to Netanyahu's reign as the country's longest serving prime minister.

"It really is the end of an era," said Goldenberg, now director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.

Under the coalition agreement, Bennett would serve as prime minister for the first two years and Lapid would serve for the second two years.

Koplow said said it's not clear yet how the new coalition will govern. What is clear: it will be a sharp pivot from Netanyahu.

"He has both dominated and personalized Israeli politics in an unprecedented way," Koplow said. "No matter who would be coming next – it happens to be Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid – will represent such a radical departure in terms of style and experience that I think is going to create a pretty steep learning curve for everyone."

That includes President Joe Biden and other world leaders who have known Netanyahu for decades, he said, as well as Israeli politicians who have served alongside the hard-charging conservative.

Arab inclusion

No less significant than the absence of Netanyahu is the inclusion of an Arab faction – the conservative Islamist Ra’am party led by Mansour Abbas – in the proposed new government.

"It is a watershed moment," Khalil said. It may be a "Nixon-goes-to-China" pivot in Israeli politics – making it easier for future Israeli politicians to join forces with Arab parties after the hardline Bennett took that first step, he added.

Koplow noted that as part of the coalition agreement, Abbas will have a significant budget to devote to improving the lives of Arab-Israelis, who make up about 20 percent of Israel's population.

"This isn't just cosmetic," he said. If Abbas is able to address inequities and improve policing in the Arab sector, he said, it could spark increased turnout among Arab-Israelis in future elections and create more pressure for future governments to include Arab parties, he said.

Priorities beyond ousting Bibi?

Abbas' Ra’am party is one of eight in the coalition, which spans Israel's ideological spectrum and is as fragile as it is unprecedented.

"The one thing holding this coalition together is a mutual disdain of Netanyahu," Khalil said. "And not much else."

This combination of pictures shows (top left to right) Israel's opposition leader Yair Lapid, Israeli former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, Israeli former Interior Minister Gidon Saar, Israeli ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, (bottom left to right) Israeli politician Nitzan Horowitz, Israeli alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, head of Israel's conservative Islamic Raam party Mansour Abbas, and leader of the Israeli Labour Party (HaAvoda) Merav Michaeli.
This combination of pictures shows (top left to right) Israel's opposition leader Yair Lapid, Israeli former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, Israeli former Interior Minister Gidon Saar, Israeli ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, (bottom left to right) Israeli politician Nitzan Horowitz, Israeli alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, head of Israel's conservative Islamic Raam party Mansour Abbas, and leader of the Israeli Labour Party (HaAvoda) Merav Michaeli.

Khalil is skeptical about how much it can achieve beyond Netanyahu's possible ouster – assuming the members manage that. He noted that Bennett is a hardliner in Netanyahu's mold. He once vowed to do "everything in my power, forever" to fight Palestinian statehood, and he supports unilaterally annexing 60% of the West Bank.

"My expectations are not high" for Bennett's leadership, Khalil said.

But Bennett and Lapid have agreed not to pursue contentious policies that could split their multiparty alliance. They said they plan to focus mostly on domestic priorities.

Koplow noted that under the last three years of Netanyahu's leadership, Israel has failed to approve a new budget – blocking changes to the country's economic priorities even as it was hit by the pandemic and other crises. If the coalition can pass a budget, that would end years of political gridlock that have deeply frustrated the Israeli public.

And Bennett and Lapid will be under immense pressure to stick together if only because they will not want to face the wrath of voters, said Goldenberg. If the coalition falls apart, it will trigger a fifth election.

"If it goes to an election too quickly, the public's going to punish them for that," he said. "That in and of itself a strong motivator to keep this coalition together."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel poised for historic vote that may oust Benjamin Netanyahu

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