There were 38 minutes left when eight very disparate Israeli opposition parties announced, just before midnight on Wednesday, that they could form a government to eject Benjamin Netanyahu from the prime ministership he has held for 12 bitter years. This last-minute outcome underscores two things. First, it says the eight-party grouping, which ranges from the leftwing Meretz to the small and ultra-nationalist Yamina of the prospective prime minister Naftali Bennett, and which will be supported by the Arab Islamist Ra’am party, is an exceptionally fragile coalition even by modern Israeli standards. Second, it shows that, in spite of Israel’s successful Covid campaign and the heightened national feeling arising from its recent conflict with Hamas, a very wide range of political groups from very different traditions nevertheless believe they have an overriding shared interest in ousting the country’s longest-serving and still ruthless leader.
This is not surprising. Mr Netanyahu may have dominated Israeli politics for a generation. But his militant divisiveness at home and abroad, and his stridently anti-Palestinian policies, have taken the country into a political blind alley. The defeat of Donald Trump has left Mr Netanyahu without his strongest international backer. He is also currently on trial for corruption, facing bribery and fraud charges arising out of three different cases of trading political favours for cash. Each of the last four general elections has ended in stalemate or something very close, most recently in March 2021. If the country was not to waste another few months under yet another unsuccessful Netanyahu regime, there had to be some sort of break. The March election has provided that opportunity – just.
The ink on the coalition agreement was barely dry when Mr Netanyahu showed that he intends to go down fighting. No one who has watched his career will be surprised. But the terms in which he expressed himself show the tactics that the Likud leader will now pursue. He instantly defined the Bennett coalition as a leftwing government against which all rightwing Israelis must fight, and then focused his campaign against Palestinian citizens of Israel, attacking the concessions, as he sees them, that Mr Bennett made to Ra’am. These so-called concessions include such apparent outrages as more Arab police, a new hospital for Israeli Muslims, and changes to building-permit regulations to lessen the discriminatory way in which they are applied. Mr Netanyahu’s ethnically divisive politics could not have been made clearer.
Nail-biting coalition talks are one of the givens of Israel’s fractured and fractious party system. But there are plenty of fraught moments ahead too. Mr Bennett, a rightwing nationalist former Netanyahu chief of staff who supports permanent annexation of the West Bank, has to win a parliamentary vote within about 10 days. His coalition has a razor-thin majority of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Mr Netanyahu will use every weapon in his armoury to chip away at the majority before the vote. His ousting, if it happens, is a moment of opportunity. But as long as Israeli politics remains on a knife edge, the opportunity will be hard to seize. There will be little incentive for the post-Netanyahu regime to bring new approaches to relations with the Palestinians or with any of the major regional issues on which the former leader thrived so destructively. It may be the end of an old era. But it is not yet the start of a new one.