Israel is set to swear in a new government that will send Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into opposition after a record 12 years in office and a political crisis that sparked four elections in two years.
Naftali Bennett, the head of a small ultranationalist party, will take over as prime minister – but if he wants to keep the job, he will have to maintain an unwieldy coalition of parties from the political right, left and centre.
The eight parties, including a small Arab faction that is making history by sitting in the ruling coalition, are united in their opposition to Mr Netanyahu and new elections but agree on little else.
They are likely to pursue a modest agenda that seeks to reduce tensions with the Palestinians and maintain good relations with the US without launching any major initiatives.
Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament and is expected to vigorously oppose the new government. If just one faction bolts, it could lose its majority and would be at risk of collapse, giving him an opening to return to power.
The new government is promising a return to normalcy after a tumultuous two years that saw four elections, an 11-day Gaza war last month and a coronavirus outbreak that devastated the economy before it was largely brought under control by a successful vaccination campaign.
The driving force behind the coalition is Yair Lapid, a political centrist who will become prime minister in two years, if the government lasts that long.
Israel’s parliament, known as the Knesset, will convene to vote on the new government at 4pm on Sunday (1300 GMT). It is expected to win a narrow majority of at least 61 votes in the 120-member assembly, after which it will be sworn in. The government plans to hold its first official meeting later in the evening.
It is unclear if Mr Netanyahu will attend the ceremony or when he will move out of the official residence. He has lashed out at the new government in apocalyptic terms and accused Mr Bennett of defrauding voters by running as a right-wing stalwart and then partnering with the left.
Mr Netanyahu’s supporters have held angry protests outside the homes of rival politicians, who say they have received death threats naming their family members.
Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service issued a rare public warning about incitement earlier this month, saying it could lead to violence.
Mr Netanyahu has condemned the incitement while noting that he has also been a target.
His place in Israeli history is secure, having served as prime minister for a total of 15 years — more than any other, including the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.
Mr Netanyahu began his long rule by defying the Obama administration, refusing to freeze settlement construction as it tried unsuccessfully to revive the peace process.
Relations with Israel’s closest ally grew even rockier when he vigorously campaigned against President Barack Obama’s emerging nuclear deal with Iran, even denouncing it in an address to the US Congress.
But he suffered few if any consequences from those clashes and was richly rewarded by the Trump administration, which recognised contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, helped broker normalisation agreements with four Arab states and withdrew the US from the Iran deal.
Mr Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a world-class statesman, boasting of his close ties with Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has also cultivated ties with Arab and African countries that long shunned Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians.
But he has been given a far chillier reception by the Biden administration and is widely seen as having undermined the long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.
His reputation as a political magician has also faded at home, where he has become a deeply polarising figure. Critics say he has long pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy that aggravated rifts in Israeli society between Jews and Arabs and between his close ultra-Orthodox allies and secular Jews.
In November 2019, he was indicted for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He refused calls to step down, instead lashing out at the media, judiciary and law enforcement, going so far as to accuse his political opponents of orchestrating an attempted coup. Last year, protesters began holding weekly rallies across the country calling on him to resign.
He remains popular among the hard-line nationalists who dominate Israeli politics, but he could soon face a leadership challenge from within his own party.
A less polarising Likud leader would stand a good chance of assembling a coalition that is both further to the right and more stable than the government that is set to be sworn in.
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