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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu May Be On His Way Out. What Happens Next?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on after a special session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, elected a new state president on Wednesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on after a special session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, elected a new state president on Wednesday.

Updated June 3, 2021 at 7:51 AM ET

Israeli politicians say they've reached an agreement to form a new government that casts out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 uninterrupted years in office. The deal, if finalized, would create a government of political opposites and for the first time include a party representing Arab citizens of Israel.

There remain several steps before Netanyahu's opponents, including his former chief of staff Naftali Bennett, can claim victory in ousting Israel's longest serving prime minister. A parliamentary vote of confidence must occur before the government is sworn in — a process that could happen next week at the earliest. The new coalition needs is a simple majority of the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Netanyahu is still fighting to hold on to his power, however. He is expected to use the intervening time before a parliamentary vote to peel off opposition supporters. He only needs one or two.

Here's a look at the players involved in the effort to take down Israel's polarizing leader and how the new eight-faction coalition plans to lead:


Who's who?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu is the hard line head of the Likud party and the nation's longest-serving prime minister. Throughout his tenure he has aggressively pursued the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and opposed creation of a Palestinian state.

The 71-year-old was first elected in the late 1990s and again in 2009. Four inconclusive elections in the past two years have failed to dislodge him. He is currently on trial on corruption charges, including bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies wrongdoing.

Raphael Michaeli, a 33-year-old Jewish Israeli who spoke to NPR while sitting in the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, said Netanyahu's corruption cases are worrying. He said it's time for a change in the nation's leadership.

"I think it's a great change, and I'm really happy about it. Like, I hope they will make it. It looks like it's going to be really hard, but I'm holding my fingers crossed," he said.

Netanyahu called the proposed new government the "fraud of the century," saying it endangers the people and soldiers of Israel.

Netanyahu said on Twitter Thursday, in a message seemingly intended to get a rise out of right-wing voters, "Bennett sold the Negev to Raam!" referencing Israel's Islamist party and an ongoing dispute over Arab towns in the country's south.

The tweet includes a graphic with a list of alleged promises made to Raam, or the United Arab List, an Arab party that has joined the Bennett-led coalition to oust Netanyahu.

The prime minister went on to say, "All Knesset members elected by right-wing voters must oppose this dangerous left-wing government."

Naftali Bennett

Yemina party leader Naftali Bennett speaks to the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem earlier this week. Bennett would be prime minister for the first two years of the new coalition government.
Yonatan Sindel / AP
Yemina party leader Naftali Bennett speaks to the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem earlier this week. Bennett would be prime minister for the first two years of the new coalition government.

Bennett, the son of American immigrant parents, comes from the same right-wing politics as Netanyahu. Under the deal he would be prime minister for the first two years of the government's four-year term. The religiously observant Bennett would be the first prime minister to wear a skullcap.

The 49-year-old Bennett served as Netanyahu's chief of staff from 2006 to 2008 as well as defense minister and minister of diaspora affairs, before reportedly leaving on bad terms.

The self-made tech millionaire has spoken about his desire to see Israel annex the majority of the occupied West Bank.

Yair Lapid

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid.
Oded Balilty / AP
Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid, 57, is head of the center-left Yesh Atid party, which entered parliament in 2013 and currently holds 17 seats, the second-largest bloc in the Knesset. He is leading the effort to form a government.

During his earlier career he was a newspaper columnist, TV host and author. He also served as finance minister in an earlier Netanyahu-led coalition.

If this planned coalition is successful in ousting Netanyahu, Lapid would take over as prime minister from Bennet for the final two years of its term. Although his party holds far more seats in the Knesset than Bennett's, analysts say he is willing to allow his far-right partner to go first in order to hold the coalition together.

Mansour Abbas

Mansour Abbas, an Arab citizen of Israel and leader of the Islamist party United Arab list. Abbas' party would be the first Arab party to be a member of an Israeli government.
Abir Sultan / AP
Mansour Abbas, an Arab citizen of Israel and leader of the Islamist party United Arab list. Abbas' party would be the first Arab party to be a member of an Israeli government.

Abbas, 47, is a dentist by profession and head of the United Arab List, a conservative Islamist party.

Abbas' presence in the cabinet would mark the first time in Israeli history a governing coalition would include a party representing Arab citizens, who are about 20% of the country's population.

Abbas said on Army Radio Thursday morning: "We obtained the legitimacy to influence the Israeli political system and not just to be present there in the Knesset. It opens a wide door for us to influence policies and decisions for the benefit of all citizens of the state and especially Arab citizens."


If successful in forming a government, what issues could this motley coalition realistically tackle?

Lapid's coalition includes a range of unlikely partners from the nationalist right to the liberal left who are unified in their avid opposition to Netanyahu and reflect the diversity of Israeli society, with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are not included.

All eight parties in the coalition want Netanyahu out, but they hardly agree on much else--including LGBTQ rights and the role of religion in civic life. Each member of this new, would-be government has agreed not to make any major moves on controversial issues like the future of the occupied West Bank.

Suzanne Brown, 74, who has lived in Israel since 1968 told NPR she believes the new government is "so disparate" and the core ideological differences between the parties will be a problem.

"There's very few major policy issues that are agreed upon. And I'm not talking only about foreign policy or the Arabs," she said. "We're talking about the court system, everything — whether it's the economic policy or whatever. So, there won't be any major reforms or any major changes."

Bennet himself has spoken of annexing most of the West Bank and referred to the creation of a Palestinian state as the end of Israel, citing security reasons.

Brown hopes the government can hold it together until the next election, "which hopefully won't be so soon," she said.


What comes next in this political process? Is this the end of Netanyahu's reign?

Right-wing activists demonstrate against the proposed coalition government in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday. The signs read: "Left-wing are traitors."
Sebastian Scheiner / AP
Right-wing activists demonstrate against the proposed coalition government in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday. The signs read: "Left-wing are traitors."

Nothing is set in stone.

The government still needs to win a vote of confidence in the Knesset before taking office.

The Knesset speaker, Yariv Levin, is a Netanyahu ally and is expected to delay the vote by at least 12 days, giving the prime minister time to galvanize his allies and peel away votes from the new coalition.

Because of Levin's support, the anti-Netanyahu camp is pushing to replace the speaker in order to speed up the vote.

In the meantime, some hard-right voters are putting pressure on right-wing religious nationalist lawmakers in the coalition not to join a government with leftists and Arabs. Protests are taking place outside lawmakers' homes.

The Shin Bet security service told NPR that as of Thursday guards were assigned to protect Bennett as he continues to face right-wing threats.

The status of this new coalition is extremely precarious at only 61 seats, a bare majority of the Knesset. If the right-wing pressure gets to just one or two lawmakers, and they choose not to vote in favor of this new government, then Israel could be well on its way to its fifth election in under three years.

NPR's Daniel Estrin and Kat Lonsdorf reported from Jerusalem.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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